Very early this week, on Thursday morning, I made my way from my home in Shandon to the outskirts of Irmo, to speak to a dozen High School Teens from a Mormon Church who meet daily to pray and study. At the “ungodly 7am hour” I was tasked with bringing these children seeking faith a “Jewish understanding” of the Exodus story.
I chose to look at the story the way we tell it through the Haggadah, our traditional thematic reliving and retelling of the story at Passover. I wanted them to understand that Judaism is a religion not stuck in a Torah time warp, with sacrifices in a Temple, and with a static law system. But that the Judaism we live today is Rabbinic Judaism, a Judaism that has developed in traditions and time, with a vibrancy and relevancy to today.
The initial question I asked the students was to introduce themselves and provide one theme that they saw in the Exodus narrative. They listed many themes – freedom, trust in God, miracles, divine plan. I explained that the themes and values of the Exodus narrative are the jumping off point for the Passover Seder. We place ourselves into the story and relive the narrative, finding parallels in our own history as we use the Exodus as a leit motif. Our values learned from our scroll live out in the counterparts we identify in this retelling of the Exodus.
My father was a wandering Aramean… refers to Abraham homeless looking for a land, just like the freed Israelites would years later. The Charoset representing the cement of slave labor, and the bitter herbs and salt water, makes us mindful of the unfairness of slave labor. The rabbis who have their Passover meal through the night to the recitation of the Shema, like Moses and Aaron seeking to free the Jewish people from Pharaoh, are plotting how best to manage an escape from the oppression of Rome. The song of Chad Gadya, One Kid, let’s us know that God will triumph over every adversary. Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya, Then came the Holy One, Praise be God…
Our Torah portion this week, Vayeitze, is of course much earlier in the Torah timeline than the Exodus story. Our parasha this week begins with our father Jacob fleeing his brother Esau, from whom he has stolen the elder son’s birthright. Terrified as to what the future might hold, he lies down that first night to rest, and has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Realizing that this strange place is filled with God’s spirit he erects a cairn there, and prays, as we just read in the Torah, that God will be with him and nurture him as he flees from a home filled with danger.
Our ancestors, Abraham, Jacob and the children of Israel – they are the biblical refugees, fleeing places of danger looking for a land that God will show them, hoping for a future that will be safer and better. Like the Haggadah, our Jewish worldview demands that we as Jews place ourselves into a Jewish narrative when we respond to the world today.
We have always done so. The Biblical story is conflagrated with our history and our response to the world. The theme of leaving the known, for the unknown, is not just found in Exodus, but has been reenacted in many places: exiled from our land and sent to Babylon, the expulsion of the Spanish Inquisition, the fleeing of the terrors of Pogroms, our family stories of moving for economic necessity.
The theme of helping the stranger and the disenfranchised, for we too, were once slaves in Egypt, is part of our DNA. Why are so many Jews at the forefront of social causes? From the right to vote, to the feminist movement, advocating for treating all human beings fairly no matter the color of the skin, LGBTQ rights, access to education?
Because in their story we see our story. Our way of being is to understand and empathize with the other and to become an advocate in social causes.
So much has passed our media screens this week on the immense tragedy of Paris and the terror occurring in other parts of the globe. And we hear fear-mongering and wariness of many in our country reticent to reach out to the modern wandering Arameans – those who seeks refugee status and a haven for their families. The concern that by being as open a society, we may be opening ourselves to the vulnerability of radicalism in our midst, has been expressed over and over again. But the unlikely danger of one madman getting through our rigorous immigration process, is a risk I am willing to take, preferred to the hardening of my heart like Pharoah, or the possible radicalization of a generation of people rejected worldwide. Greater problems in the long run.
Much of the anti-Muslim and anti-Middle Eastern rhetoric sounds very similar to the fear mongering, when we as Jews, not so long ago were seeking refuge from the Nazi regime and our terrors in Europe. The parallels are to be found in many well-articulated articles. In those words uttered today, we must relive our own rejection, not so long ago, and ask… can we in good conscience at this point in history stand idly by?
Despite fear and reservations that we all if honest have, we must remember our history and our teaching. We too have been wandering Arameans, we too have been the victims of war and pillage, we too have had our families pulled asunder, we too have been homeless. In our eyes we must look into the eyes of those rendered stateless by war and regimes and find empathy.
But more than empathize we must act.
I applaud our Canadian Reform Jewish congregations that are adopting and assisting Syrian refugees. Their country’s response and immigration laws has made this act of Tikkun Olam easier than to do the same thing here. So let us ask, what can we do to help our Canadian congregations. Might we send them financial support? Might we find a way to use them as an extension of our hands to repair the world?
We must reach out using our connections in South Carolina to teach beyond the xenophobia spoken by our States Representatives and to advocate for finding places for refugees within our state lines, in our country’s coast and heartland. Through Jewish organizations like HIAS we can help resettle those who are in need so that they know we as Jews live our values with compassion.
The Judaism we live today is Rabbinic Judaism, a Judaism that has developed in traditions and time, with a vibrancy and relevancy. It is too easy to be held hostage by fear and forget who we are and what we stand for. And if we let the terrorists fear sway us from humanitarian action, who are we? What are we?
We must, as we always have, take the values of our Torah, the values of our story, the values of our history and ask, as our ancestors have always asked – how might we assist those who need assistance?
Ken Yehi Ratson, May we follow God’s will, may this be our will.