By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Torah Reading: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah Reading: Amos 9:7-15
Not a day passes, it seems, without some sort of march – on Washington, in the streets of major cities, and even now in the squares of the furthermost towns and villages. This week alone, tens of thousands marched in Washington DC, in San Francisco, and other locations, giving voice to the need for more active involvement in bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur. And, not 24 hours later, reports estimate that more than one million people marched through cities – small and large – to raise awareness and advocate for more fair and equitable treatment of the millions of immigrants living in this country.
Immigration has been a defining feature of America's history and, in some way, will continue to be one in America's future as well. Our land is one with a long history of hope for a better life, and of being a land of liberty and freedom from fear and persecution. Today, More than thirty one million people living in the United States were born in a foreign country. According to statistics, of those, an estimated eleven to twelve million may have entered the US without the necessary documents or have outstayed temporary visas, many of whom have come to flee hunger and persecution.
But, migration is not an issue created in the United States. Nor can it be relegated to simply a question of economics. It is not an issue that is limited to the Latino, Asian, or other specific community of which we may not be a part. Nor is it exclusively a question for Californians, Texans, and other select geographic communities located on the border of Mexico. Migration has been a central component of the Jewish experience since biblical times.
In this week’s double Torah portion of Aharei Mot/Kedoshim, the Torah records the lengthy list of ways in which Jews live out a life of holiness and sanctity. Within this code of holy conduct, the Torah instructs
: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Borne out of the collective experience of having suffered as strangers in the land of Egypt, Jews have an ethical and Torah mandate to think about strangers and to insure that each is treated as would any one else in the land. Thirty-six times the Torah references the Exodus from Egypt as an ethical basis for insuring the proper treatment of the stranger. The Torah does not detail an evaluation of how the person may have gotten in the land, who the person might be, or where they might settle. Quite the opposite in fact, the Torah teaches that strangers are equal in God’s eyes to citizens and that every citizen of the land must be mindful of their own behavior to make sure they are not contributing to any wrongdoing against the ‘stranger’.
Trying to understand these verses, the 11th century Spanish commentator, Ibn Ezra, offers as the basis for this caution that the stranger lacks power within the community and can become vulnerable to the display of power from those within the land. It is precisely for this reason that the Torah attempts to level the field and prohibits the abuse of power that will ultimately hurt others.
The debate within our communities and amongst our lawmakers will continue; and, at the heart will remain discussions of immigration, security, and refugee status. We have all heard the divergent proposals – some arguing to make it a felony to help immigrants in any way; while others arguing for pathways leading to citizenship and full rights within our great country. At the end of the day, whatever policy decisions might be made, the Torah’s mandate is the same. Immigrants, like natural born citizens, are human beings and have the right to be treated with human dignity, grace and compassion. The cries of hurt and pain are being voiced and together we must find creative ways to continue protecting the lives of the many amongst us in fair and humane ways.
The words of Emma Lazarus, so poignantly displayed on the Statue of Liberty ring as true now as they did when she wrote them: “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
So may it be.