Immigration and diversity: in Pharaoh's Egypt and in our America (Parashat Vaera 2018)

These words are adapted from my remarks at the United Synagogue of Hoboken on January 13, 2018.

Several years ago, I noticed that whereas I don’t always devote sermons to upcoming holidays on the American civic calendar, I have always, without fail, made sure to speak about Martin Luther King in some way on the shabbat before Martin Luther King Day.   It occurs to me that this is for many different reasons.  First, that Martin Luther King Day is the one and only day on the American civic calendar that is dedicated in memory of a religious leader, so it reminds us of the potential role that religious leaders can play in improving the character of a society (and reminds me of my responsibilities as a religious leader).  And second:  unlike so many American holidays that are simply celebratory occasions, Martin Luther King Day is a day not only of celebration but also of contemplation.  It is a day to celebrate how far the United States has come on this journey towards equality and freedom, and a day to contemplate how far we have yet to go.

As we know from Martin Luther King’s most famous speech in 1963:  The founders of the United States set a blueprint for a nation that would be free and equitable, asserting that all are created equal and are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights -- but those words of the Declaration of Independence were a promise that had not yet been fulfilled, “a promissory note,” “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”  However, as King said, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”  King retained a confidence that even if justice and equity were not  yet achieved in his own day, they would eventually be achieved.  Clearly we are closer to the achievement of that dream than we were 55 years ago when King spoke those words -- and closer to the dream than we were 50 years ago when King was assassinated. And yet we all know that that dream is still not fully realized.  It will not be fully realized until it is really true, as King envisioned, that people of all ethnic backgrounds and religions and national origins and other characteristics would be fully welcomed to help to build the society.

This week’s torah portion is called Vaera, from the book of Exodus, and it gives us an opportunity to look closely at a story in the Torah that revolves around how different groups in a society relate to each other.

In last week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the experience of Egyptian slavery. We read that the Hebrews in Egypt were growing and multiplying - and Pharaoh was getting alarmed.  He said to his advisors:  “הן עם בני ישראל רב ועצום ממנו -- the people of Israel are getting to be too numerous for us.  הבה נתחכמה לו-  let us deal wisely with them.”  It is clear from Pharaoh’s language that these Israelites are living among the Egyptians, but they he does not consider them to be Egyptians. In fact, they are considered to be so different from the Egyptians that Pharaoh feels threatened by them and tells his followers to prepare for a hypothetical scenario in which the Israleites would actually sympathize with the enemies of the Egyptians.
So for the Egpytians’ own safety, they decide that they need to weaken the Israelites - and this is why the Egyptians enslave the Israelites.

This week’s Torah portion of Vaera tells us about the first 7 of the ten plagues -- plagues that demonstrate God’s power and God’s insistence that everyone should be free.  The plagues eventually weaken Pharaoh’s resolve so that -- spoiler alert --  in next week’s torah reading of Parashat Bo, he will finally let the Israelites go free.

Pharaoh’s words in this part of the Torah reflect his discomfort with a heterogeneous Egyptian society.  Someone who is different from him is perceived as a threat.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Pharaoh keeps hardening his heart throughout today’s torah portion, and why the plagues don’t seem to work:  Pharaoh has been assuming that the Israelites are threatening and dangerous to Egyptian society, so he understands the plagues as simply confirming the assumptions about the Israelites to which he had already subscribed.  

Not surprisingly, I have been thinking about American diversity this week -- and about the history of American immigration, which is the primary means for how the United States got to be as diverse as it is.

I have been thinking about how my ancestors came to this country, when, and from where.  Like many American Jews, and large numbers of us in this sanctuary, I am descended from Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the New York area between 1880 and 1924.  

When people describe Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe, why is that period always described as concluding in 1924?  What happened in 1924? ….

Between the 1880s and 1920s, immigrants poured into the US -- including large numbers of Jews.  But there started to be concerns among some Americans that the United States was becoming too diverse.  Too many immigrants, from too many different places, and not all of them were people who would ‘fit in,’ so to speak.  And so a law was passed in 1924 which curtailed immigration for everyone, but especially for Jews, for Eastern Europeans in general, and for Italians.  Additional immigration from Western Europe and Northern Europe continued to be encouraged, however, to make sure that THESE would be the groups that would remain the majority in the United States.  According to the US State Department historian,the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.’  President Calvin Coolidge stated in his 1923 State of the Union address, and reiterated when he signed the bill into law in 1924,

he said, “America must remain American….Those' who do not want to be partakers of the American spirit ought not to settle in America..”  There were some categories of immigrants who were believed to be undesirable for America - because they were poor, or likely to be involved in crime, or they just were changing the American character into something that didn’t seem so American anymore.

I am not planning to quote the vulgar expression used by the president to refer to poor and troubled countries this week, countries from which he did not think we should be seeking immigration because we want more immigration from places like Norway.   When I hear him talk like this, I remember that the advocates of the immigration act of 1924 might also have talked like this -about the places from which my grandparents and great-grandparents came.  And I am grateful that my ancestors all arrived in the US before 1924 -- and deeply sad about the fate of my Jewish Eastern European relatives who didn’t make it to the US by 1924.   If the president had been alive at that time, why should I think he he would have been on the side of my ancestors and relatives?

We affirm today that it is precisely the diversity of American life that is one of its greatest strengths, just as our torah reading reminds us that Pharaoh did not realize that diversity could have been one of Egypt’s strengths.  The people I know who are immigrants from Haiti, Africa, El Salvador, and many other countries labeled by the President are EXACTLY the people who are making America strong. There are many people in our synagogue at this moment -- congregants, guests, employees -- who fall into the categories that the president labeled pejoratively.  I can only imagine how I would feel if the president of my country were to have referred to MY ethnic group in such a way.  I hope that if I ever did hear that, that my friends and neighbors and co-workers would be quick to stand in solidarity with me -- which is why I want to say: if you are from a group that the president labeled pejoratively, I stand in solidarity with you.  No matter what the president may say, you are valued in this country.

Almost 2000 years ago, our sages taught us in the Mishnah:  
שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכלן דומין זה לזה, ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחברו.
A human being can make a bunch of coins from the same stamp and they will all be identical, but God makes all human beings in the image of God, and using the stamp, so to speak, of the first human being, and yet all people are so gloriously different.   

In Jewish tradition, the wide diversity of humanity is not cause for alarm, but cause for celebration.

To the extent that many Americans agree, we have Martin Luther King to thank - as we both pray and work for the fulfillment of his dream  “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all … are created equal."


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