Yom Kippur 5776/2015

In Psalm 137, we read these famous words: Al naharot bavel / By the rivers of Babylon / sham yashavnu, gam bachinu / there we sat down and we wept / b’zochreinu et tzion / as we remembered Zion, our homeland. From the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE on, Jews have experienced being strangers in a strange land. And from the year 70 onward, with the Roman dispersion across North Africa and up into Europe, we became the world’s resident aliens. Indeed, our defining story as a people, the story we tell over and over again, is one of fleeing oppression: the Yetziat Mitzraim, the “Exodus from Egypt”. For nearly 2,000 years, until the establishment of Israel in 1948, we Jews have spent most of our history as wanderers, in Exile, in the Diaspora, seeking a place to feel safe, to feel welcome. And so, here we sit, today, in the Diaspora, in our adopted home, watching unfold the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. If ever there were a Jewish issue, it is this one.

For the last many weeks and months, hundreds of thousands of refugees, (thousands every day!) have been streaming into Europe, fleeing war and violence, poverty and starvation, ethnic and religious persecution and gang violence from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and other countries. Hundreds of thousands are already refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Italy and Greece, whose systems have been stretched to a breaking point. So, now, they are going any way they can. On foot through Turkey across Bulgaria and up through Serbia and into Hungary – children and what few belongings they have in their arms. They are going on rickety, crowded boats across the Mediterranean Sea –roughly 3,000 have already drowned in these perilous sea crossings – and those who make it, clambering ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos, and if they can find a way out of over-crowded detention camps to the mainland, they continue marching on roads, along railroad tracks, across the continent, most with the goal of reaching northern Europe, Germany, Austria, France, and Sweden. Because their path is often blocked by unwelcoming countries, many have used the last of their money to hire unscrupulous human smugglers, paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars per person to get out, to get across the sea, to get over international borders. I imagine that most of you heard the grisly reports of the 71 bodies found locked in a truck in Austria, and the 50 found dead in the hold of a ship bound for Italy from Libya. I’m sure you’ve seen the picture of the drowned Syrian boy in the arms of the Turkish soldier; or refugees fleeing teargas in Greece and water cannons in Hungary; the squalid detention camps and crowded train stations; the sleeping refugees in open fields.

It’s overwhelming – and Europe’s response has been, shall we say, uneven. Great Britain recently announced its intentions to take a paltry 20,000 – Syrians only – over the next five years! France will take only 24,000 over the next two years. Hungary has built a barbed-wire fence across its entire border with Serbia to its south, and has given its police permission to shoot anyone trying to cross. Bulgaria also has a fence. Even France is putting up a fence in Calais, near the entrance to the tunnel that goes across the English Channel. In stark contrast, Germany and Austria have taken in the lion’s share of migrants, as Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel said this of the crisis: “I am deeply convinced that this is a task that will decide whether we maintain our European values. The entire world is watching us.” Following suit, thousands of Germans and Austrians have gathered at border crossings and train stations, clapping as refugees arrived, holding up welcome signs, and providing food and water, clothing and toys. Although in just the last week, Germany and Austria have been forced to set up border controls, Germany alone expects to take in 800,000 refugees by year’s end. But there are millions.

Now, if I didn’t convince you a few moments ago with my Exile argument that this is a Jewish issue, perhaps this will. In Poland, the government claims that since they have been a homogenous population for the last half century (we all know how that happened) – for this reason, they should not have to take in immigrants – and if they do, they should only be Christians. Slovakia actually said they could not take any Muslims because they had no Mosques since their country was Christian. But perhaps even more frightening and sinister, in the Czech Republic, police wrote ID numbers with permanent markers on migrants hands as they arrived in the train station in the capital city of Prague – until someone reminded them of the practice of Nazi tattooing in the concentration camps. In Croatia, authorities separated men from their wives and children in an utterly dehumanizing attempt to control them. And in Hungary, police may now search people’s homes at will to see if they are hiding refugees; while in their capital, Budapest, authorities filled a train with desperate migrants telling them it was going to the Austrian border when, instead, the train went to a detention camp… one of several camps there, with precious little in the way of shelter, food, and water.

All over Europe, nationalist parties have been taking full advantage of this tragedy, stirring up fear, to further their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and, make no mistake, their anti-Semitic agendas. Perhaps you saw the camerawoman tripping and kicking adults and children as they tried to leave detention camps. This camerawoman works for the Hungarian nationalist TV channel linked to the Jobbik party, the largest and most popular right-wing group in Eastern Europe. In fact, they are so far to the right, they have criticized Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary and President of another right-wing, nationalist party, for being “too soft on Gypsies, Gays, and Jews”. Meanwhile, here’s what Orban, this so-called “soft-on-Gypsies-Gays-and-Jews” Prime Minister said recently, defending his country’s harsh treatment of refugees and razor-wire fences: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims…. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.”

OK, I hope you get the picture – the all-too-obvious parallels to events in Europe just 70 years ago. But I hope you get the whole picture. This is not just a Jewish issue, but an American one as well. Because we cannot just sit here and cluck our tongues at Europe and pretend that our country has nothing to do with events in the Middle East or Africa. We cannot just sit here when demagogues and fear-mongers talk about walls and fences right here in our own country, stir up hatred, cast aspersions on entire groups of people –appealing to our basest of emotions rather than to our better natures. We cannot just sit here while some of our leaders – and candidates for the highest office in the land – declare this country a “Christian nation”, blatantly ignoring the Separation of Church and State. And we cannot sit here and turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant part of the crossings of our own border to the South is also a refugee crisis of people fleeing gang violence, crushing poverty, and even, in some locations, massacres, especially of indigenous people. In fact, between 2013 and 2014, the United States saw a 44% jump, not in illegal immigration which is actually declining, but rather in asylum seekers.

Finally, this is not just a Jewish issue, or an American or European issue. This is a world crisis. Because as long as we ignore climate change, and as long as we ignore the growing chasm of income inequality (as of now, the top 1% of earners in the world own almost half of the world’s wealth), we will see more conflicts over land and resources and technology and we will see more refugees worldwide fleeing wars, drought and flood and famine. At the end of 2014, the United Nations reported that nearly 60 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced – almost twice the number from a decade ago – and half of them are children. Furthermore, the UN states that one in every 122 human beings in the world today is now either a refugee, living in exile from their native land; internally displaced; or seeking asylum. And that was 2014. 2015 is now drawing to a close.

But, at its heart, this is an issue about what it means to have a home, to feel safe, to be able to answer the simple question: “Where do you live?” There are three words in Hebrew for what we translate as “to live”. The first, Leishev, means “to sit” or “to dwell”, often temporarily, as when we sit and eat and sleep in the sukkah we build after Yom Kippur. The second, la-gur, means “to live somewhere” as in a country, city, or neighborhood. Finally, there is the verb le-shacheyn, a word mainly applied to God, such as when God calls to the People Israel saying, “Asu li mikdash / Make me a sanctuary / v’shachanti (that I may dwell) betocham / so that I may dwell among you.” Even God is asking us for a place to live! This mikdash, this sanctuary we schlepped through the desert may be lost in the sands of time, but if we still understand what it means to be Jewish – what it means to be human – then we must continue to carry God’s sanctuary among us and within us. We must open our hearts and minds to this human tragedy and call upon the nations of the world – including our own – to open their doors, to find a way to make a sanctuary for these millions of men, women, and children looking for a place to live.

This past weekend, the State Department announced that instead of 70,000, we would take in 85,000 refugees by the end of 2016 and 100,000 by the end of 2017. But this is our worldwide quota and 4 million Syrians alone have already fled their war-torn country. I pray that we find the courage to shut down the voices of hatred and bigotry in our country today. I pray that we accept these people as we wish we had been accepted just 75 years ago. I pray for this, as the great Jewish-American poet, Emma Lazarus wrote: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; send these homeless and tempest-tossed to me, Mother of Exiles.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, as we remembered our homes. During the Babylonian Exile, the Prophet Ezekiel pictures God leaving the Temple in Jerusalem and coming to dwell with the exiles in Babylon. From that moment on, in the Jewish imagination, God lived in Exile with us. God rejoices with us when we are glad, and God weeps with us whenever and wherever we suffer. And, as much as we may think we need God, it is God that needs us. God needs us to heal the brokenness in our world.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah / May you already be inscribed for life and for goodness. Good Yontiv.

Published in Rabbi Susan's Sermons on January 7, 2016