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A new kind of border

Jewish refugees flee Vilna during World War II.

By Rabbi Benjamin Resnick, Rabbi Alison Adler, Rabbi Richard Perlman, Rabbi Rim Meirowitz, Rabbi David Kudan, Rabbi David J. Meyer, Rabbi Michael Ragozin and Rabbi Steven Lewis

JULY 5, 2018 – Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a Hasidic rebbe of 19th-century Poland, once asked why redemption arrived for the Children of Israel at the precise moment when it did. Why were the slaves not liberated a generation earlier or a generation later? His answer was that that God realized that the people no longer felt the sting of their suffering and no longer saw it as remarkable. Accustomed only to pain, they felt that brutality was the natural way of the world. And this, God tells Moses, is the most dangerous of all possible situations. This was the moment when God could wait no longer, and so God sends a messenger to get the people out, taking them on a journey from Africa to Israel, a small, battered family of refugees looking for a better life elsewhere.

As 21st-century American Jews we are living through a moment very much like the one that Simcha Bunem imagined, a moment when brutality has become normalized to such an extent that a mere seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz we find ourselves living comfortably in a country in which parents hear from government agents that their children are going to take a bath, only to discover that their children do not return.

And if our tradition is coming to tell us one thing it is coming to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that the brutality being perpetrated at our borders is not normal. Half a century ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.” His words, unfortunately, remain urgently relevant.

Throughout history, pious Jews have adopted a wide range of political postures according to their priorities and their consciences, as, indeed, one would expect from the inheritors of a tradition as broad-minded and as multivalent as ours. May it always be so. But as the heirs of Abraham and Sara, of Moses and Miriam, of Hillel and Akiva, there are times when we are called to look beyond politics and, in our capacity as a light unto the nations, speak and enact higher and deeper truths. When it comes to our practice of separating immigrant families – and holding children hostage as we fumble through our own political machinations – we must speak clearly and without equivocation. This is a grave moral sin, one that runs counter to the values we hold dear, both as Jews and as Americans. We must not only know better – we must be better. And while we are hopeful that the recent executive order allowing families to remain together as they navigate the labyrinthine process of seeking asylum will alleviate some pain, we continue to mourn for those families that have already been torn apart. And we commit ourselves to continued vigilance, knowing full well, particularly in light of Jewish history, that if it happens once it can certainly happen again.

Judaism by no means advocates a world that is border-free. In fact, the Tanakh describes the specific boundaries of the Land of Israel in great detail, both with respect to the far reaches of the Land itself and with respect to the parcels belonging to the various Israelite tribes. And yet, in the context of the Tanakh’s concern with boundaries, we must never lose sight of why the Torah delineates borders in the first place. Consider a famous passage from Deuteronomy, which commands us as follows: “Do not return a slave to his master who has sought refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in a place where you choose, in one of your gates for his own benefit. Do not oppress him.” (23:16-17) Commenting on this verse, Rashi, the great medieval exegete, offers an important gloss. “This refers even to a non-Jewish slave, who fled from his Jewish master, from outside the Land of Israel to the Land of Israel.” In the context of a tradition that, for better and for worse, is very often focused on the primacy of tribe and kin, this comment is startlingly radical. The quintessential outsider – the non-Jewish slave who, according to Biblical law, does not go free even in the jubilee year – must never be restored to her abusive master, even when her master is one of us. When she reaches our lands we are to lighten her burden and grant her peace. When it comes to borders, the message is clear: whoever you are, and wherever you come from, if you are running from danger, if you are fleeing from the presence of those who would cut you down, arriving in God’s country means that you are safe at last. The borders of a holy land are not walls, but thresholds. They are erected not to keep the others out; rather, they are established specifically in order to welcome others in, to offer them shelter from the storms raging beyond. This is a message that we Jews must carry with us always, sharing with the world wherever we go.

Indeed, for most of our history, we Jews have been crossing borders, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally, sometimes of our own free will, but mostly as frightened refugees, looking only for somewhere to rest and hang our hats, until we’re forced to leave again. We are Hebrews in the truest sense of that eternal and sacred word, which comes from an ancient root that means “to cross a river.” As Jews it is our destiny, and our sacred mission, to enforce a new kind of border, a border than ensures safety and dignity for all those who have the courage and the good fortune to step over. We therefore call upon all of our leaders to act now. We call upon the president, members of Congress, senators and all who enforce the law to put aside politics in favor of compassionate and visionary governance. This is the promise of Zion and it was once the promise of America. May we never forget.

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