Introduction to Torah Reading - Rosh HaShanah Day 1 (5776 / 2015): Refugees in the Torah

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's introduction to the Rosh HaShanah torah reading)

The torah readings for the holiday of Rosh haShanah focus on the first family of the Jewish people - and it’s a blended family, of two parents, Abraham and Sarah, and their son Isaac, and then also Ishmael, who is Abraham’s son from another partner, Hagar.

Sadly, blended families are sometimes fraught with tension, and that is the case with this family.  There is a conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, and between Sarah and Hagar, that leads to Hagar and Ishmael being sent away.  They lose their way; they run out of water and food. Hagar is sure that her son will die until miraculously she sees a well of water and is able to revive her son.

Families thrust away from their homes.  Parents trying desperately to keep their children alive. It’s hard to read this story without thinking of the headlines around the world right at this moment.  Hagar and Ishmael are among the original refugees in the torah - the first ones described as being thrust from their homes and therefore vulnerable to all the forces - natural and otherwise - that threaten our world.

As  you certainly know, there are more refugees now than at any point since world war II.  Most are displaced from the Syrian civil war -- the figures are staggering:  seven million people internally displaced; four million in the neighboring countries.  Some are fleeing the fearsome and criminally abusive Assad regime.
Some are fleeing the even more fearsome and incomprehensibly criminally abusive ISIS regime.  Others are fleeing from war-torn areas in Africa, like Eritrea and Somalia.  And the full-blown refugee crisis in Europe has dominated headlines for the last couple of weeks - not because very much has changed on the ground, as the situation has been dire for months, even for years, but because a uniquely horrible photo has galvanized attention to the crisis.

Jews know a thing or two about the experience of being refugees. And for this reason there are many Jewish communities all over Europe, and all across the Jewish spectrum - that are taking a leadership role in encouraging their countries to welcome refugees.  For example, I read an article this July about how the kosher soup kitchen in Milan, Italy, provided the meals with which Muslim Syrian and Eritrean refugees and volunteers in Milan broke their fasts for Ramadan, and how the Holocaust Memorial in Milan has become one of the central locations for social services for the thousands of refugees.

In the last week I have received notes from my colleagues at Masorti (Conservative) congregations in London and in Berlin and in Stockholm, all describing the efforts they are taking to provide for the tangible and physical needs of the refugees in their communities, and also to encourage their governments to welcome refugees.  (See also this article about Jewish community response in Great Britain.)   As well as the host of American Jewish organizations - including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or HIAS - that are advocating for the United States to do more to assist refugees, here and through financial support wherever they are.

Now it bears noting that not everyone in Europe thinks it’s such a good idea for European, historically Christian, nations to welcome Muslim refugees from Syria.
it’s appropriate to look at some of their talking points because some of them may appear familiar.

Yes, taking in refugees in large numbers can affect the culture of a community.  This is a good point - though it was an equally good point when people said this about Jews in the 1940’s, when it was said that taking in large large numbers of Jews would change the culture of the United States and not for the better.

Yes, taking in refugees can mean taking in some people who have ideas that are out of the mainstream or that are even dangerous.  Certainly there is a small number of Syrian refugees who are jihadists and it would be terribly dangerous to admit them to the West.  It’s a good point - but an equally good point when it was used against Jews in the 1940s with the assumption that a certain percentage of Jews were communists and anarchists.

Yes, no one country can be responsible for solving the rest of the world’s problems.  This refugee situation is a Middle Eastern problem, not a European problem.  It’ss a good point…. though it was also an equally good point when people said it about Jews in the 1940’s -- noting that the oppression of Jews was a European problem, not an American problem or a Middle Eastern problem.

Not for nothing does the Torah say וגר לא תלחץ ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם. בארץ מצרים “Do not oppress the stranger - because you know what it’s like to have a stranger’s soul - for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  There is much about the experience of being strangers, migrants and refugees that Jews know.  And the Torah asks us to let our experiences motivate us to respond with empathy and compassion.


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