The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
On Wednesday, February 7th, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher participated in a rally outside of Senator Chuck Schumer's Manhattan office alongside a diverse group of Jewish clergy, lay leaders, and activists to urge the Senator to use the power of his office to push for a clean Dream Act. The rally was part of the nationwide Let My People Stay campaign, a grassroots movement of Jews across the country inspired by our history, traditions, and sacred teachings to act in solidarity with immigrants and demand protection for the 800,000 DREAMers who could face deportation without a legislative fix. Photo courtesy of Michael Brochstein of Split Stone Media.
"Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)
How is it, that the weekly Torah portion always speaks to us so directly, telling us truths that we may not want to hear?
As Jews, we know something about being the foreigner. We know what it's like when nations, fearful for the future, fearful of change, take out their fears on foreigners.
I haven't taken a formal survey of our congregation, but my working theory would be that a tremendous percentage of members are descendants of people who, not more than three generations ago, fled oppression in Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria, and other nations. In those places during the 1890's, in the 1930's, after hundreds or even a thousand years, we were suddenly seen as foreigners who were convenient and nearly powerless targets of national fears.
In those places, sometimes we were merely tolerated, but more often than not, we had been seen as integral parts of society; we had paid taxes; we had been contributing members of our communities; we had served in the military of the only home nations we had known. Some of our countries of origin were seen as the most advanced, most cultured, most civilized nations of the world.
Until they were not. Until we were not.
My friends, these are unusual times. A friend of mine shared with me a military acronym to describe such times-- "VUCA". VUCA is short for the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous multilateral world that resulted from the end of World War II. The term VUCA came into more common usage during the 1990's.
When the world is changing quickly, unpredictably, in new and confusing ways, it seems to be human nature for us to look for ways to try and slow down that change or control it. Or, failing that, we look for someone to blame.
Some in our great nation, in this VUCA world, are falling back on the oldest scapegoat in the world, in a desperate move to try to slow the rate of confusing change. They want us to blame 200,000 El Salvadorians who fled earthquakes and gang violence 16 years ago. They want us to blame the 800,000 "DREAMers"-- young people who were brought to this country as children by their parents. They want us to blame the 11 million undocumented residents of this nation who live in the shadows, all while working hard, raising American children, contributing greatly to our nation and, oh, by the way, committing crimes at a much lower rate than native-born American citizens.
They want us to blame the foreigner.
We, as Jews, must not simply think, "that's terrible." We must not simply say "that's so wrong," to our friends who agree with us. I imagine there were Egyptians who thought and said those things as we were being oppressed 3,000 years ago. We've heard countless stories of Germans, Russians, Poles, and Austrians who did nothing as we Jews were oppressed; our fellow countrymen simply stood by, appalled.
"Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners." Our Torah portion calls to us to act. To speak up. To speak out. To hold our nation's leaders accountable. In this VUCA world, we, as a nation, can respond in two different ways. We can pull together, calling on the strengths of all who live here. Or we can take out our fears on the foreigner.
Which will we choose?
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, and a leader with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.