October 26, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

 

“I want to stay in your country and be a citizen,” said the older looking gentleman standing in front of the Immigration Officer.

Officer: “How did you get here?”

Applicant: “Easy, I crossed the border.”

Officer: “How old are you?”

Applicant: “I’m 75 years old.”

Officer: “Are you married?”

Applicant: “Yes”

Officer: “Do you have any children?”

Applicant: “Not yet, but I’m planning to have many.”

Officer: “Do you have any family already here?”

Applicant: “No”

Officer: “Do you have others with you?”

Applicant: “Yes, my nephew and a few slaves came with me as well.”

Officer: “Do you have a way to make a living should you be allowed to stay?”

Applicant: “A salesman can always make a living. I’ll get by. I hear there are lots of jobs if a man is willing to work hard. I can herd sheep. I’ll move around a lot.”

Officer: “I may have to take this application under advisement. Your name again sir is?”

Applicant: “Avram, but you can call me Abraham.”

Fortunately for us, Abraham, our patriarchal ancestor, did not have to be processed through immigration in order to enter the Land of Canaan many years ago. As we are currently reading in our weekly Torah portions he heard God’s call to go forth, brought his wife and family and settled in a new land. As an immigrant, he had his difficulties and conflicts with those who were already there. We will read next week how when trying to purchase a burial cave for his wife, he has to pay a steep price, explaining to the locals, “ger v’toshav anochi- I am a Resident Alien among you.” I doubt that this term had the same meaning then as it does now. Nonetheless, he was clearly the outsider needing to establish his status. Even when there is plenty of room for everyone, there is a natural tendency to feel threatened by newcomers, sometimes those feelings are justifiable, but often, they are not.

Our country is facing a similar problem today. There are approximately 11-12 million undocumented individuals currently residing in the United States. The vast majority are good, hard working people, who simply want to earn enough to care for their families. They dream the same dreams as those of the immigrants who preceded them. We all know who they are and many of us have had personal contact with them in recent days. Nationally they are the people who harvest the food we eat, provide labor on our construction sites, pave our roads and work in a variety of stores and factories. Locally, they are the people who clean our homes, installed our cabinets, put sheetrock on our walls, tile on our floors and roofs over our heads.

The issues relating to immigrants are multi-faceted. We need these people to perform important functions within our economic system. Unfortunately many have entered the country illegally and even after having lived here for years, contributing to the economy, including paying various taxes, they are still illegal. Ironically, some pay Social Security taxes, but they are ineligible to receive Social Security.

Governments and employers have winked an eye to their presence. As a sub-group in our society, many immigrants are caught in a cycle of poverty and violence, particularly in major cities. They place additional pressure upon community social services and educational resources.

Those seeking to come here legally face multiple barriers to their entry. The process of receiving a visa can literally take years, often resulting in the separation of family members. And the actual number of visas available is inadequate to meet the need for workers.

From a humanitarian perspective these people are often oppressed either by those who bring them into the country or those who employ them in sub-standard working conditions. Thousands have died simply trying to enter the country. Not being under the umbrella of federal or state protection laws, they suffer in the field and the factories. One news segment covering this week’s California fires showed illegal migrant workers staying in the fields, lest they lose their jobs and hiding from police, lest they be deported.

On the one hand, we cannot open our borders to just anyone who wishes to enter. Post 9-11 security has us appropriately concerned about the possibility of terrorists entering our country. And there are those who believe that the answer to immigration problems is to simply build higher-tech fences and walls. Alternatively immigration has been and continues to be the lifeblood of this country. Did we not just elect the son of immigrants as our Governor? We must find a fair and equitable balance between the need to protect our borders and at the same time integrate as citizens those immigrants who need to come here, along with those whom we need.

For us as Jews, immigration is both a spiritual and historic issue. It is not a coincidence that Jewish poet Emma Lazarus penned the poem that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” is a fundamental expression of the American spirit and reflects the American Jewish experience.

Yet long before Emma Lazarus, our Torah taught us that we should “not oppress the “ger- the stranger, i.e. the immigrant,” for we know what it was like to have been a ger- a stranger in Egypt.” That sentiment and reminder is repeated numerous times in one form or another in the Torah. One of my rules about Torah study is to recognize that when a prohibition or exhortation for certain conduct is found, that means it was deemed necessary to respond to the way people were behaving. (You don’t install a traffic light where there is no traffic.)

Just as our ancestors may have forgotten what it was like to have been enslaved in Egypt, all too many of us have forgotten that once we were an immigrant people. In the 1800’s and early 20th century when most of our families arrived in America, we ran into a variety of barriers. Those who were already here resented the newcomers. It was an “us” vs. “them” mentality and we were “them.” This was not only an issue of Christian America not being open to Jews, but the first wave of Sephardic Jews not being happy about the arrival of the German Jews, then the Germans being resistant to the Eastern European Jews. We all too easily fall into the sin of xenophobia, the fear of others and their differences, the fear that they will upset the order of life as we know it.

At the same time we do not wish for others to take advantage of us. This Shabbat we read of the origin of the mitzvah of being hospitable to newcomers. There is a wonderful midrash that teaches when visitors come you should feed them choice plump fowl on the first day, then meat on the second day, fish on day three, dairy on day four and veggies on day five. In other words there are limits as to how far hospitality is required and this recognizes that when newcomers arrive it can be a drain upon the support system.

In fact from the opposite perspective the Talmud provides guidelines for those who move into a new town as to their communal responsibilities: If a person resides in a town for 30 days, he must give to the soup kitchen; after three months to the tsedakah collective; by six months, additionally to the clothing fund; after nine months to the burial society and at the end of twelve months to the repair the town walls. (Talmud Baba Batra 8a) Many immigrants legal and illegal are already meeting their societal responsibilities.

As with so many issues, there needs to be a balance between compassion and justice, an appropriate understanding of the conditions and realities of people’s lives  along with the need to comply and maintain the law. From the beginning our tradition recognized that tension. A midrash on creation itself compares it to a king who had some empty glasses: The King reasoned “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract and snap.” What did the King do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them and so they remained unbroken. Even so, said the Holy One, “if I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and mercy, and may it then stand!”

This principle of balancing judgment and mercy surely applies to the debate concerning immigration legislation. In the previous Congress attempts to amend the laws in a just way failed. Following national elections, there will be renewed activity to pass meaningful immigration law reform. Taking a cue from our national Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a coming resolution that will be presented at our Biennial Convention in December, I believe that the following principles should be incorporated into whatever legislation is passed:

  1. Border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration, thereby allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry into the United States of terrorists and dangerous criminals;
  2. Opportunities for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue an option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens;
  3. Reforms in our family-based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families, who currently must wait many years, to be reunited with loved ones; and
  4. Legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights fully protected.

My friends let our voices be heard on this critical issue of our time. Shame on us, if we fall into the easy comfort of excluding those who rightfully have a place in our economy and society, failing to remember that once we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Long ago our ancestor Abraham went forth to a new land. We walk in his footsteps.

AMEN

In preparing this sermon I benefited from the sermon “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” by Rabbi Norman Cohen of Bet Shalom Congregation , Minnetonka, MN, along with the URJ proposed resolution on Comprehensive Immigration Reform and  a position paper from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.