Rabbi Kahn’s Sermon for July 19th – Talking about Immigration

This past week, I had an interesting conversation. You see, as a clergy member of the reform movement, I’ve been receiving information on how to – help end child detention, on supporting deportation defense, and helping DACA and DREAMers to feel safe and prosper.  Recently, our reform movement encouraged us, in anticipation of increased ICE raids, to look into providing physical sanctuary for those in need, or supporting organizations that do.  While going through the checklist of all the ways to help, speaking about it with others came to the top of my list. So I brought it up to a personal contact with political influence.  Well, I quickly realized that from their perspective, helping do the right thing meant supporting ICE as they picked up individuals with deportation orders and sent them packing.  For reasons of national security, local safety, protecting our borders and the importance of upholding the rule of law, this person very dear to me argued that the deportations were the right thing for our country.

Knowing that we, as a community, can only grow and thrive if we have respectful conversations that allow for various opinions, I decided to bring the conversation to you tonight. In order to do that, I turned to our Torah portion to help me explore this debate further.

Our Torah this week is overflowing with magic, mystery and blessings. The text was also a reminder of how cruel our world can be to strangers. You see, in our story right now, we Israelites are refugees, living a nomadic experience and frequently fighting for our lives. We are trying desperately to make our way to a land that offers the promise of freedom and prosperity. We’ve lost members of our community and everywhere we go we are told we are not welcome. A foreign leader – King Balak – looks at us and instead of seeing our humanity and offering us sympathy, views us a threat and does all that he can to make our burdens even greater. Believing the spiritual world’s strength is greater than that of the physical, this leader, Balak, doesn’t send in raids or physical force, but rather seeks out a prophet who can curse us, doom us, stop us in our tracks and send us back to the hardships we fled from.

One of the more unique stories in our Torah, the narrative then takes a turn. God sends an angel with a fiery sword to stop this prophet before he curses us. However the prophet does not see this heavenly messenger, only the donkey he rides perceives it. The donkey swerves to avoid the angel and the prophet angrily beats him. Then God opens up the donkey’s mouth. This simple creature is filled with wisdom and the ability to speak and asks ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me?!’

This question offered a glimpse into the mindset of a victim and stood out to me as key. When people receive harsh treatment, they too might be left wondering – what did I do to deserve this?

Thankfully for the donkey and the Israelites, the prophets eyes are opened and he sees the angel and he learns he can only bless the Israelites, not curse them. And while he continues to try to offer curses, God only allows blessings to come forth.

Today, I believe there are many people, many families, asking America the same question the donkey asked the prophet Bilam – wondering what they ever did, to be treated with such fear, such anger, such cruelty. At the same time, I’m aware that those who are wary of them may have numerous possible answers to offer.

Now is the moment in the story when the miraculous should occur – when God’s will is made known, when we clearly see right from wrong.

In the world we live in though, there are no miraculous talking donkeys and no prophets who can steer us in the right direction. So how do we, as loving caring people, and as Jews, a people that knows the plight of the immigrant and the refugee all too well, how do we balance our compassion for these individuals with the importance of the rule of law?

On one extreme we have people trying to keep all immigrants out. On the other extreme we have people who want to openly let everyone in. Somewhere in the middle, I believe, is the answer. Somewhere in the middle is the possibility of a just and humane immigration policy that can keep criminals out AND treat people with compassion and respect.  But as of now, that only exists in our hopes and dreams. So how do we proceed?

We must realize that in today’s world – we are the hands of God.

Like I said – No prophet is coming. No angel will be seen. No animal will miraculously speak. It has already happened, here in our Torah. And from this we’re supposed to learn our lessons of how to live and be. It is therefore our job as a Jewish community to read this Torah portion and remember to be a force for good in this world. Now – many people will take that call to action in different directions, but whatever we believe – it is incumbent on us to speak up. We must serve as the voice of the prophet, the angel and the animal.  We must speak up and say – there must be a middle ground. There must be a way to proceed with a more just rule of law.

Our Torah portion is clear on one issue – refugees deserve help and blessings, not curses. While there is a difference between all immigrants and refugees in particular, I believe we can all agree that it is our job to make sure refugees are welcomed and kept safe, not punished for their existence, not punished for fleeing from danger and death. For if fleeing danger and wandering to new lands in search of a better life were a heinous act, there would be nothing to read in the Torah, and there would be no people Israel today.

This is why the Religious Action Center, has declared, “In the face of harsh and punitive federal immigration policy, the Reform Movement is mobilizing to advocate for just and compassionate policies … We will not stop until families are reunited, asylum seekers are no longer treated as criminals and our immigration system is reformed.”

Let us pray that our government, all of our nation’s decision makers and individuals with power, work together to provide a compassionate resolution to this issue, that sees and respects the humanity in all people while simultaneously meets the rule of law and protects our society.

This Shabbat, our Torah reminds us that this is not simply “good” work, but necessary work. Our reality reminds us that we have not yet figured this out and thus we must keep trying, keep going, keep working to change the law and make our national policies kinder, while still keeping us safe.

I invite members of our community to come meet with me to continue the conversation, and to figure out how we as a congregation can help embody the lessons of Torah. Progress will only happen by holding respectful and intellectual conversations, and finding a new way – a just and kind middle ground. Please join me if you’d like to explore this work of Tikkun Olam, repairing and bettering our nation and our world.

Shabbat Shalom.