This article was originally published on January 30th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.
I spent last Sunday with the new Syrian family that our community helped resettle in New Jersey. Along with my rabbinic colleagues, we spent time with the family that Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation helped to resettle. The family has asked that we do not use their names out of fear of retribution to family members still in Syria. During our conversation together, it was clear how grateful they were to be here, and how much emotional baggage they carried with them. They came with just a few suitcases. Our community graciously and lovingly donated clothing, houseware, and furniture to furnish their new home that we found for them. But all they brought with them, all they had left of their lives, was a few suitcases. Their children are beginning school in the local elementary and high school in the coming days and their oldest child is committed to being fluent in English as quickly as possible so that she could enroll in a university soon.
They arrived at Newark International Airport days before President Trump’s inauguration, and days later, I can’t help but think how lucky they are that they arrived when they did. If they were delayed and arrived any later, they wouldn’t have been allowed in this country, a consequence of the President’s discriminatory executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, temporarily freezes the US refugee program entirely, and bans all Syrian refugees from entering the United States going forward.
As a rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, this xenophobic policy is deeply troubling to me. In June 1939 the St. Louis was turned away and not allowed to anchor in the United States, out of fear that the German Jews on board were actually Nazi spies.More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Statistics from 1938 show that the vast majority of Americans weren’t willing to allow German or Austrian refugees into the country. On January 27th, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and made the commitment of ‘Never Again.’ The promise of ‘Never Again’ means that never again will be turn away refugees, sending them off to be slaughtered. Never again will we be apathetic towards millions who are just seeking safety under God’s sheltering presence. And yet, we find ourselves at this crossroads, where the government has seemed to ignore this commitment of ‘Never Again,’ specifically singling out refugees because of their ethnicity and faith.
My congregation joined the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees a year and a half ago and joined HIAS’ list of Welcoming Congregations this past spring. We, along with the other synagogues in the area, joined withChurch World Service to resettle refugees because we were determined to not just talk the talk – to not just sign on to a statement or add our names to a petition – but to walk the walk. And now in light of this discriminatory executive action, we are left asking ourselves: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Who do we want to be?
On Saturday night, I joined hundreds at Newark International Airport, among them congregants and rabbinic colleagues, to protest these discriminatory executive orders and demand that refugees and immigrants be allowed to enter this country. I cannot be silent. I refuse to be silent. We must continue to take action, even when we feel hopeless – and especially when we feel hopeless – to fight for what we believe is right.
This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, a continuation of the exodus narrative, in which God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed. God begins with a promise, looking into the future, focusing on the destination of the journey ahead:
I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you for the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Ex. 6:5-6).
This initial promise sounds pretty good. Those who have suffered will be given a new opportunity to begin again. Yet, as God explains to Moses that he will be the leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron will be his voice, the Lord threw a wrench into this supposed promise:
You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:2-3).
This always baffled me. Why would an Omnipotent God intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why wouldn’t God just free the Israelites at that moment? One would think that after finally hearing their cries of four hundred years of servitude, God would immediately take them out of slavery. The rabbis are equally concerned with this and try to rationalize Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
Midrash Lekach Tov blames the Israelites, suggesting that after being enslaved for so long, they weren’t ready to be free. They needed to witness God’s miracles to understand that freedom was actually a possibility for them. Rashi teaches that at that moment, if Pharaoh was to repent, it would be inauthentic. He couldn’t have experienced wholehearted teshuvah, so his heart was hardened. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh needed to be punished for his actions. Pharaoh needed to suffer from these plagues as a revenge of sorts. But none of this explains why God preemptively warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. Why does God reveal the plot twist before it even happens? Because ultimately, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh; it was about Moses.
Moses may have been a hesitant leader due to his fear of speaking in public, his “uncircumcised lips,” but his belief in helping the Israelites was never in doubt. He risked his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace to prevent a taskmaster from beating a slave! This was a cause that he cared about from an early age. But what would happen when he got to that first road block? What would happen when the door was slammed in his face? Would he return to Midian as a shepherd and ignore the hardships of the Hebrews? Or would he continue to bang on Pharaoh’s door, until he banged the door down, demanding ‘Let My People Go’?
God wanted to make sure that Moses was in this for the long haul, because if he cared enough about this cause, then he needed to be in it for the long haul. It would’ve been easy to get frustrated, pack up, and go home. The path to justice isn’t straight, but that doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing it. Moses knew that time and time again he would demand the Israelites’ freedom and would be turned away, but he kept coming back. He refused to give up. He knew what he stood for was right and wasn’t going to let the hardened heart of an authoritarian get in his way.
So now, at this point in history, we ask ourselves where do we go from here? Who do we want to be? We are the descendants of refugees who came to this country seeking safe haven. Many of us are refugees ourselves. We are a people who are taught to welcome the stranger, a commandment found in the Torah more times than any other commandment. So who do we want to be? After signing on to statements and petitions and even resettling refugees, do we move on in the face of bigoted policies? Do we continue to complain to our friends in our own echo chambers, posting on social media to those who already share our views? Do we give up and return to Midian, defeated with our heads hanging in shame? Or do we do what Moses did, keep banging on Pharaoh’s door, fighting for what is right?
Who do we want to be?
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky