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Immigration through a Torah Lens

08/08/2019 09:10:35 AM


Lauren Park

In this week’s Torah portion, Matot & Masei, we find Moses and the children of Israel about to enter the Promised Land. Over the past 8 weeks, we have recounted their turbulent journey through the wilderness, their search for safety and security, their search for home. And now they are standing on the eastern bank of the Jordan River – the doorstep of the Land of Israel. They have dreamed about this moment for 40 years and they are right at the finish line!

But it’s at this point that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who are cattle herders, see that the land on the east side of the river is fertile and well-suited for herds, and they ask Moses whether they might settle there instead of crossing over to the land that God had given them.

Moses’ angry response to this request is understandable. He worries that without these 2 tribes, he may not have enough warriors to conquer the Land of Canaan. Moses himself has been denied the fulfillment of crossing the Jordan, so who could blame him for feeling exasperated by those who would spurn the opportunity for which he longs and will never see. After all the struggles and wars, hunger and thirst, the numerous times they earned and suffered God’s wrath to get to this point, and they selfishly want to bail right before crossing the finish line?

Moses asks them if they really intend to abandon their community’s struggle when they are so close to reaching a homeland for all the tribes. After hearing Moses’ rebuke, the Reubenites and Gadites agree to take part in the rest of the journey to establish a home for the entire community before returning to the eastern bank with their cattle. The message of the Torah is clear. Everyone in the community must be in a safe place before any of us can consider ourselves to be home.

I think about this journey, and what these people endured to get to this point. Narratives of wandering and displacement are an integral part of our communal Jewish identity and our individual family histories. Stories about fleeing persecution and arduous journeys in search of safe refuge lie at the heart of our most sacred texts, but also describe the immigration tales of our grandparents and great grandparents.

In June, I was in NYC and visited the Tenement Museum and experienced a piece of my grandmother’s immigration story. Her parents and siblings left Lithuania, came through Ellis Island at the turn of the century, and settled in one of these tenements on the lower east side. That’s where my grandmother was born and lived for the first 10 years of her life. I stood in those tiny apartments and thought about how crowded and hot and smelly her young life must have been. Like most immigration stories, this story was one of bravery and perseverance.

Jews have a powerful and intimate relationship to migration and the search for home, and we have a particular ability to speak to the plight of displaced people. Jews can connect our sacred and familial memories of wandering to the current, on-going global crisis causing millions of people, like the ancient Hebrews, to be vulnerable and homeless. We can understand the poverty, violence and oppression that would cause a mother from Central America to risk a dangerous journey in search of sanctuary. In that mother’s courage, tenacity and grace, we see our own great-grandmothers. We can feel the anguish of these refugees as they wait at the US border, so close to reaching the Promise Land, agonizing as the opportunity to enter that homeland potentially slips out of their grasp. We know the pain of the asylum-seekers who are rejected because we collectively remember the 938 Jews fleeing the Third Reich aboard the St. Louis who were refused entry into the US and compelled to return to Europe.

The Torah reminds us again and again that we must treat immigrants humanly and protect them from harm because we have suffered through the challenge of being strangers in lands not our own. Our responsibility to the immigrant – or perhaps, more aptly, to the heroic journeyer – requires that we honor the image of God in all people. We have a unique voice and we must use it to educate and advocate for the rights of displaced persons everywhere and for fair immigration laws here in our country. As we finish reading the Book of Numbers, may we rededicate ourselves to this central message of our Jewish tradition and promise to all do our part to ensure that every human being has a home in the fullest sense of the word, a sanctuary where human dignity can unfold.

Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784