On the morning of Tish’ah b’Av I had the opportunity to introduce the recitation of Kinnot to my minyan. The Kinnot are elegies, complex poems written by rabbis over the millennia recalling the many disasters that befell our people, from the exile of the 10 tribes in 722 BCE, the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the second destruction in 70 CE, the Crusades, beginning in 1066, the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242, and on down to the Holocaust in the last century. Some of these Kinnot are written in the first person, as if to implore us to look back on these tragedies as personal witnesses, in the same way that we look back on the Exodus during the Seder. In the same way that we “must see ourselves as if we, too, left Mitzrayim,” so too should we look back upon these harrowing moments in our history, if for only one day in the year, as if we experienced them ourselves.
One reason to remember, and to personalize, these historical events is to learn the lessons that should be gleaned from them. We learn from our sojourn in Egypt that God intervened with a mighty hand and outstretched arm to rescue us, but also that in Egypt we lived as strangers, just as we have for most of our history, and that experience teaches us how we should think about the treatment of the strangers among us. And we recall the devastations because they can always revisit us, with little warning.
On this day of mourning, fasting, and contemplation, there is one other thing that I, and many Jews did in cities around the country – we demonstrated.
We demonstrated against our country’s inhumane policies against migrants, refugees, mostly coming from countries in Central America, people who are seeking refuge from lawless and economically depressed countries, which people are fleeing for their lives. Our government’s policies justify the inhumane warehousing of people in camps, separating children from their families, living in squalor and starvation.
Why demonstrate on a day so focused on our own history and our own tragedies?
It wasn’t long ago that Jews were in the same situation as those people coming from Central America. We were unwelcome in this, the Goldener Medina, the Golden Land, and in just about every other land, when we tried to escape the rise of Nazism in Germany and the spread of the Holocaust. We see in them a mirror of our own pain in trying to escape an uncertain fate and find a safe haven. True, it might not be fair to draw full equivalency between our situation 75 years ago and the plight of Central Americans, or Syrians, or Yemenis, today. But when the Torah tells us time and again to be mindful of the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt, the Torah is not drawing an equivalence between the stranger in our midst and our plight as slaves to Pharaoh.
If non-Jewish strangers can fall victim to such policies, and to the racism and hatred that is being spawned against them – and against just about every other non-white minority in America today – what about us? Anti-Semitism is on the rise, with the number of reported incidents growing at an alarming rate over the last few years. If it can happen to them, it can happen to us. Should we not be concerned?
As Jews, we know something about being forgotten, only to be remembered by those who know only how to hate us.
I have friends from around the world, some from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Venezuela, among others. Many are separated from their families, some of them living in war zones, all coming from countries where human rights are curtailed. I hear their stories and their worries; some, living in one of America’s most expensive cities, send money back home to their families. Their stories remind me of the stories I heard from my immigrant dad, my Yankee mom, and my European-born grandparents. In many cases, their stories are our stories, and in some cases, the disasters they can recount is of their own Hurban, destructions that they have witnessed in their own homelands.
On Yom Kippur, our other major fast, we read Isaiah 58 in the morning haftarah. Less known than Jonah, this chapter teaches us about fasting with righteous intent.
“This is the fast that I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free;
to break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
and to take the wretched poor into your home;
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to ignore your own kin.” (vv.6-7.)
In light of Isaiah’s charge, what better a day to protest mistreatment of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free under the protection of the Mother of Exiles?
Mark Mulgay writes from Cambridge.