Parashat Chukat 5778
I delivered this sermon June 22, 2018 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.
Our Torah reading cycle is not unlike our daily news cycle. A step back reveals a slowly developing narrative, which is somehow married to the desire to dissect and comment on every possible detail. You can follow along casually, or you can spend the entirety of your days on deep dives for nuance. Sometimes things move to fast for us, and sometimes we wish we could skip ahead in the action rather than struggle through something we don’t like.
And on that note we return Bamidbar, to the desert. The Israelites have been journeying through the unfamiliar and unforgiving land. They have struggled mightily along the way, and complained bitterly. Many have died, and few feel confident that their journey will end in the Promised Land.
Suddenly, the Israelites catch a potential break. They find themselves on the southern border of Edom, home to the descendants of Esau, people they call cousins. The worn down Israelites reach out, requesting safe passage through - but their neighbors to the north respond a with aggression and violence.
49 thousandths of a second. A little less time than the length of a finger snap. That’s how long it takes for your brain to respond to the cry of a child. Many parents surely know the feeling. Your heart races, your muscles tense, you take a gasp of air - as you prepare to spring into action and save the child from harm. How many of us felt these reactions while following the news this week as the cries of children burst through the surrounding chatter? When the cries of children being separated from their parents pierced our hearts? How many of us sprung into action? Seeking to identify and eliminate whatever was endangering the children at risk?
What is endangering these children is the “zero-tolerance” policy being enforced at the US-Mexico border. This policy calls for the detention of all border crossers but in what was a misguided response to a legal protection for children, the policy triggered the splitting of parents and children so that each group was held separately. On Wednesday, an Executive Order was signed, declaring that families would no longer be separated at the border, opting instead to detain families as a unit for the time being.
However, it remains unclear when the thousands of children already separated and scattered across the country will be reunited with their parents, if ever. Our policy at the southern border is endangering the lives of children and destroying families. Our country’s policies have caused traumatic, and perhaps irreparable harm to our fellow humans. Do you know that folktale about the town gossip and the feather pillow? The gossip was told to rip open the pillow on the hill above town, and then to collect all the scattered feathers. Impossible! You can never gather them all back and restore the pillow. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
But we’re not talking about feather pillows or toothpaste here - we’re talking about human beings in cages! The traumas suffered by these children and their parents, those are wounds that may never fully heal. The physical and psychological damage done can never be fully undone. Like the cries of the families themselves, this reality is difficult to hear. It is easy to say, “Not I. Not my policy” and point fingers, but that is overly simplistic and ineffective. Think about this:
When the refusal to allow the Israelites to pass comes from the Edomites, verse 18 reads:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֱד֔וֹם לֹ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר בִּ֑י פֶּן־בַּחֶ֖רֶב אֵצֵ֥א לִקְרָאתֶֽךָ
“Edom said to him, You shall not pass through us, or else we will come after you with the sword”.
What I want to draw out here is picked up by the medieval sage Nachmanidies. He asks, “who says no to the Israelites? Not the King of Edom, but ALL of Edom”. The entire nation is held responsible for an action probably passed down by their leadership…. How does that feel? The Talmud teaches Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh ve zeh, all of Jewish people responsible for one another. But how about all Americans? I am responsible for the representatives who speak and act in my name just as they should be accountable to me when taking action. Or how about Kol Anashim Arevim zeh ve zeh? All HUMANS, are responsible for one another? The people at our border, seeking a Promised Land of their own - what is our responsibility to them?
As Jews, border crossings are in our DNA. It is here in this week’s reading, and it is in our name! The Israelites, or Hebrews, are often referred to as Ivrim - ayin -bet -resh. It is the same root you see in verse 17 meaning “to pass through”. We have countless moments throughout our storied history where we too struggled to make it safely to the other side. Times when we were aided by those around us, and times when we were left on our own. We have been protected, and we have been abandoned.
The Torah hammers home the importance of this empathy, reminding us time and time again that we should treat the ger, the stranger, resident alien, the migrant with the same honor we treat our own. FOR LEST WE FORGET! כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם - we too, were migrants in the land of Egypt. We too, were turned away at Edom, we too were expelled from Spain, and attacked across Europe, and denied entry into the United States, and threatened in Charlottesville.
This essential aspect of Judaism, this collective memory of oppression, adds a level to our mandate to stand up in the face of injustice. We know that the roots persecution run too deep to be swept aside. We know the need for help is dire, we know the time for action is now.
So how do we respond? Where can we turn for guidance on enacting change? We can find wisdom from our leaders Miriam and Aaron who both die in this week’s parasha .
“Be like the descendants of Aaron”, as it says in Pirke Avot, and on the walls of this very building - “ love peace and pursue peace, ohev shalom, v’rodeph shalom”. It’s interpreted to mean that Aaron prized truth and peace in his heart and pursued it with his actions. He not only talked the talk, but walked the walk.
Miriam was the spiritual guide, and the rallying cry of the Israelite camp. At the crossing of the Red Sea, it was Miriam who shouted “Shiru L’Adonai” urging each and everyone of us to lift our voices in song. If we are collectively accountable for the actions of our leaders, then let us rise up together with full voice to make ourselves heard.
As Congregation Rodeph Shalom, we join together as the inheritors of both leaders’ messages. As individuals we must be diligent in our personal quests for justice, and we know how much stronger we can be if each of us can stand up and we unite as a whole in full voice. We can act alone by contacting our elected officials to tell them how we want to be represented. And we can join in a larger whole at protests or rallies, like the ones taking place on June 30th.
May we remain ever vigilant and prepared to spring into action at the snap of a finger whenever we hear the cries of those in need.
May we join together, as a community, welcoming the stranger. And may we be full in voice and spirit, so that all can hear our echoes in our unrelenting pursuit of peace.