Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 September 9, 2018
“My Home Sweet Home?”
The New York Times, dateline, July 3, 2018: “The 5-year old and his family had traveled thousands of miles to escape. When they finally arrived on American soil, free from marauders…, the boy was placed in a holding pen with his brothers and sisters, while immigration officials decided their fate.” A line taken from an article about immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, timed to coincide with this summer’s Independence Day, yes? No. It was an Independence Day article, but it was about the beloved Jewish American composer, Irving Berlin.
Berlin’s family fled persecution in Russia and emigrated from Siberia in 1893. It’s a familiar scenario, similar to stories that many of us heard about our own grandparents or great grandparents, except, perhaps that part about the holding pen. It may surprise us to learn that upon arriving in America at the turn of the century, immigrant children were sometimes separated from their parents. But, within a day or two, the family was reunited and allowed to enter the United States, as in the case of Irving Berlin. Twenty-five years later, the year he became a US citizen, Berlin composed God Bless America.
Now imagine that Berlin came with his family, seeking asylum in America in 2018. They would likely have been deported. Five year old little Irving, then known as Israel, might have been kept in that pen for weeks or months, separated from his family until he lost all hope that he would see them again. Or he might have been left here while his parents were deported back to Russia. Many of our grandparents who came over as youngsters, with or without their parents, would have had the same fate. I think of my grandfather on my father’s side who came over alone on a ship at age 14. He surely would have been put in detention as an unaccompanied minor. I think of my grandfather on my mother’s side. Under current proposals about severely curtailing so-called “chain migration,” my grandfather would have to be sent back because he came at the invitation of a relative. My grandmother and uncle, still back and Europe, would never have been able to come at all.
As we enter a new year, we have many tasks before us related to the theme of teshuvah, repentance. We are to perform a cheshbon hanefesh, a checklist self-evaluation, of our personal lives, our spiritual lives, and of our communal commitments. I want to suggest this evening that part of that cheshbon is to take a good, hard look at our country’s values and how far we have moved away from values that once defined us as a nation.
Attitudes toward immigrants in this country have had their ups and downs. But at least since WWII and the lessons of the Holocaust, until very recently, all Americans held that beacon of hope in the New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty, as a sacred icon. And its inscription at the base by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor,” was a unifying creed. For Jews, this feeling was deeply rooted in Jewish values and, of course, the Jewish experience. Indeed, it has been said that, for Jews, “the Statue of Liberty is the mezuzah on the doorpost of America.” (Jason Fenster, T’ruah fellow)
But today, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty– as a welcoming figure and of the open arms of the American people, waiting to receive the “tired and poor and the wretched refuse”– has become tarnished. There are those who argue that because the Lazarus sonnet The New Colossus on the base of the statue was a later addition, it does not really define what the statue is all about. As Americans and as Jews standing on the precipice of this New Year, precisely because we are a people who have been forced again and again to be migrants against our will, we Jews must lead the way on this issue. We must press our leaders– and our neighbors– to restore the welcome of immigrants to America as one of the highest, most fundamental principles of who we are as a nation.
I have shared on many occasions the fact that the concept of welcoming the stranger is repeated no less than 36 times in the Torah. No other commandment is repeated so often, not even the commandment to love God. Perhaps my sharing this repeatedly makes me sound like a vinyl record that keeps skipping on the same groove. If so, at least I am in good company, as the Torah seems to have the same feature. But, why?
The writers of the Bible were keenly aware that people who are comfortably settled in any land often become resistant to others wanting to join them. Regrettably, past immigrants can be among the loudest voices in seeking to limit immigration. Whether immigrants or descendants of immigrants, Jews or non-Jews, those who advocate for keeping people out, so quickly forget that they themselves were once the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Being very familiar with this phenomenon of the immigrant shunning newcomers, the authors of the Torah felt the need to repeat the commandment to welcome the stranger many times over.
Note that this commandment is often stated along with a qualifying explanation of why one should observe it. This is rarely the case for the other 612 commandments. For example, in its first appearance, we find: ”You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). The Torah writers provided a reason for the commandment because they knew well the human tendency to fear the “other.” So they reminded people that they themselves were once the dreaded “other.”
Other formulations of the commandment say: “You know the heart of the stranger.” (Ex 23:9) The Torah wanted to have us search our hearts for compassion and empathy for those seeking safety and a better life, whatever the context of their desire to enter. The verse seems to be saying “This was you, your people way back when, remember? Therefore, toss away fear and prejudice, and bring out the heart of welcome.”
Getting back to Irving Berlin and God Bless America, did you know that folk singer Woody Guthrie used the title of this song in his first iteration of This Land is Your Land? Not as an homage, but as a critique to the overly simplistic view of America’s goodness in God Bless America. Guthrie’s original refrain was not “This land was made for you and me,” but a sarcastic “God bless America for me,” and this was also the original title of the song. (Wikipedia) Guthrie songs often gave voice to the downtrodden and the homeless, migrants and deportees. His original concept in using this refrain was meant as an ironic twist on Berlin’s God Bless America. He spoke to that attitude of privilege that allows us to say God bless America for me, but not for you. You, stay away or go back to where you came from.
Interestingly, Emma Lazarus was a person of privilege. She was a descendant of the very first group of Sephardic Jewish immigrants who settled in this country in what was then New Amsterdam, now New York City, way before the Revolution. They were a very well-established and well-to-do family. Emma did not identify with the immigrant cause until she worked “with Russian Jews detained by immigration officials on Ward Island” in the late 1800s. The sonnet The New Colossus, l ater used on the Statue of Liberty, was the result of this experience. (TIME, Aug 2, 2018)
America’s welcome to immigrants today should be a non-negotiable, as it was in the Torah. Especially as Jews, given our history and our commandments, we must not become restive and let our privilege and our remove from the issue blind us or make us callous.
This day of Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hadin, Judgment Day. It is the one day of the year when all of us are said to pass under God’s watch as Divine Judgment is cast upon us. It is interesting that the image of God as judge in Jewish lore is that has two attributes: That of justice, in Hebrew, din, and that of mercy or rachamim. And they are presented as co-equals is assessing our worth as human beings. In rabbinic literature, God is depicted as having two thrones, moving between the throne of justice and the throne of mercy while considering our fate. (Avodah Zarah 3b) The Talmud also imagines God as saying: “Oh! that I might forever let my mercy prevail over my justice.” (Berakhot 7a)
Our tradition teaches us that our goal as human beings is to try to emulate God’s attributes in our lives. The principle of Imitatio Dei, the imitation of God, requires of us that when we sit in
judgment of others, we too must weigh justice and mercy. Mixing these two in equal measure must be at the top of our consciousness as we seek to repair our broken immigration system in America.
But, what we hear from some in this country is all harshness and toughness. The explanation is that we have to be careful because of the threat of terrorism and crime and increased poverty that foreigners can bring to our nation. It is so very troubling that leaders of our nation who actually have the power in their hands to decide the fate of human beings at our borders, sit only on the throne of strict justice. Earlier this year, legislators, backed by the White House, proposed a skills based system to curb the level of immigration. The new legislation — if passed — would limit the types of family members of immigrants that can be brought to the US. In addition, the proposal creates a system in which potential immigrants would earn points for having a high-paying job offer, strong English skills, an advanced degree, especially from a US school or in the STEM fields. Note that these restrictions are for people seeking to come in as LEGAL immigrants, not those trying to get in another way. (Migration Policy Institute August 2017) Would our grandparents have amassed enough points if this system had applied to them?
As Jews, who are supposed to weigh justice and mercy, how can we allow this kind of system to be put in place? Where is the mercy in a system based on calculations of skills and knowledge, most of which would be impossible for most people to obtain before arriving here? What about using compassion as a criterion? Compassion for the struggles and dangers that refugees face? According to the storied Jewish immigration organization HIAS, the number of refugees on this planet is over 65 million. One person was displaced every two seconds in the past year. (actionagainsthunger.org) The global refugee crisis is larger than it has ever been in human history, and our country is not stepping up to help.
In the U’netaneh Tokef passage where we consider mi y’chiyeh umi yamut, who will live and who will die, we have an image of God the shepherd holding a staff and human beings as the flock; of God as keeper and guardian who reviews the souls of those marching past. On this issue of immigration, our leaders, and by association all of us, are in the position of caring for and considering those who enter our country, passing under the shepherd’s crook of US Border Patrol, Homeland Security, and our courts.
As I sat in a US Federal District Court in Laredo, TX in July, I witnessed a literal Unetaneh Tokef before my eyes. Over seventy young adults from various countries in Central America were shepherded into the courtroom, under heavy security. They stood before the judge as one large group, wearing earphones for Spanish translation. Over several days in the prior week, they had been caught crossing the Rio Grande. They entered there because the United States has
made entering at the legal border with Mexico so onerous that people resort to desperate and risky alternatives to get in.
These people chose to leave home and everything they knew, and encountered many dangers along the way. They were willing to take that risk for a chance for a new start in a new home. Think about what that means: What would it feel like to you, emotionally and physically, giving up your relationships, national identity, and the physical space you call “home,” to be in their shoes? And now, in the courtroom, you are faced with the prospect of a criminal conviction, due to a new zeal for enforcement that has been in place since last spring. What would you think about this country?
As shepherds, keepers, guardians of a nation, what is our responsibility to these human beings who want to come here? In Unetaneh Tokef, we read that God “counts and considers every life, sets the bounds and decides its destiny.” Our nation is doing this very thing at the borders every day. From what I witnessed in Texas, there is a key piece missing in this process. We are counting, but not considering every soul. Without consideration of their circumstances, we are rejecting souls. They have no chance to tell their story in court. They are told that they can seek asylum, but they have to prove “credible fear” within two weeks of their sentencing. How would that be possible?
When we think back to Irving Berlin and his choice to use the words “my home sweet home” as the concluding phrase of his ode to America, we are struck by the contrast of the welcome he was given and what immigrants experience today. Berlin thought of America as “sweet,” but those who come today are most often sent away with a bitter taste in their mouths.
It is interesting that Berlin later put Emma Lazarus’ poem to music as well. Lazarus called the Statue of Liberty the “Mother of Exiles,” declaring: “
promised, the welcome that once defined who we are as a nation. As Jews, we must lead the
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to
me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” America must restore the embrace that Lazarus
way in welcoming the stranger, serving as the rays that go forth from the harbor lamp– atop that
bronze “mezuzah on the doorpost of America.”