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Sermon: Parshat Chukat, 7/12/19

07/13/2019 10:09:03 PM


Rabbi Charlie

Moses sent a messenger to the King of Edom, saying, “You know we’ve experienced hardships. You know the Egyptians dealt harshly with us. Please. We just want to cross through your country. We won’t take anything. Please, make this journey a little easier. Please.” In response, the King of Edom threatened war, so we were forced to go the long way around. We were then attacked by the King of Arad. We were forced to battle Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, king of Bashan. Throughout this week’s Torah portion, in a time of need, instead of compassion or hospitality, we were met with rejection and aggression.

And throughout our history we had to take the long way to find a sense of safety and freedom. We have been kicked out of basically every country in Europe. We were barred from jobs, excluded from mainstream society – second class citizens or worse. We lived in fear – when was the next pogrom, the next riot, the next massacre going to come? Security and stability were always temporary. This is our history.

America was the promise of something better. And from the 1880s to 1924, Jews and many others flocked to these United States. The immigration act of 1924 put severe quotas on immigration from many parts of the world. Many Americans were fearful of immigrants because of jobs and wages, concerns about allegiance or political ideology, racism, the burden and concern of undesireables on American society, violent or criminal tendencies, and more (see a small collection of primary sources here:

That fear of immigrants and refugees lasted through World War II and could not have come at a worse time for the Jewish people. We don’t know how many could have been saved from the horrors of the Holocaust, such as the 937 passengers of the St. Louis who were denied entry in Cuba, the U.S., or Canada, and were forced to return to Europe. That rhetoric of fear has returned – we hear all the reasons to keep people out that were offered one hundred years ago in many parts of society today.

In addition to the fear, we also hear the compassion, especially in parts of the Jewish community. Many of us can identify with the refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border. Refugees never leave their homes easily. For everyone one of the millions of refugees around the world, and for those at the border, there is a story of war and violence and more - impossible situations, impossible choices. Their stories are our stories – the stories of our family, the stories of our People.

In the same way, many of us can also identify with those seeking to immigrate and have a better chance at life in America. Their aspirations are our aspirations and the aspirations of our parents and grandparents and great grandparents.

The hard truth is that no matter how much we identify with the refugees and immigrants at our southern border and no matter how much we fear them, we are failing miserably to address the situation. Problems have persisted for decades and both Republicans and Democrats are to blame. We’ve seen inaction, band aids, wishful thinking and a lot of rhetoric – for decades. We need practical, thoughtful solutions that balance dignity and compassion with justice and security to address this absurd situation.

If individuals and families and children have to be detained while they wait for a hearing, we should be able to treat them with dignity, respect, and compassion. Border Patrol agents are not trained to be babysitters. And if so many people are showing up at our border in spite of all of President Trump’s, um, “discouragement,” maybe we should see if there is anything we can do to address the root problems in those countries. The accounts of women and girls fleeing Honduras are truly horrific (

With hundreds of thousands of people forced to take a very long road to safety and security, our tradition and our history encourage us to advocate for solutions. Everyone agrees that we have major problems at the southern border. We have a mixed Congress, so one party isn’t pushing their narrow agenda anywhere. We need to help our leaders cast aside the political posturing and encourage them to work together.

I know – in our current environment, it sounds like a joke. It’s really not. The more I hear about the border, the more frustrated and angry I get. And regardless of how much advocacy we do, I don’t see our leaders actually solving problems any time soon. So what to do?

What could we do collectively to help address the humanitarian need that exist? For someone waiting for an asylum hearing, could we collect supplies or offer comfort or support? For someone who has been granted asylum because the need was real, could we help get someone settled? In the words of Elie Wiesel, “as long as we help one man, one woman, one child live one hour longer in safety and dignity, we affirm a human’s right to live.” If you feel that this is an area of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, that we should focus on, please talk with me or Barry Klompus, our Tikkun Olam chair. Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, August 6 2020 16 Av 5780