The Antidote to Forgetfulness

It’s about five years ago, and I am sitting in a gathering space in my synagogue with a diverse group of leaders from our broad-based community organization, Border Interfaith. We are training in the art of the relational meeting, the “one-to-one” which is the heart of community organizing, and we’re doing it through a “fishbowl” exercise in which a couple of people practice while everyone else watches. Our organizer is in the fishbowl with a man, demonstrating the sort of curiosity that draws people out and gets them to tell their stories.

The man who has agreed to be the goldfish is an immigrant from Central America, now a quarter-century removed from his former existence. He was a government employee in the land of his birth, college-educated and well-compensated. Political upheaval ended his career and threatened his life, so he made the journey to the United States and is now a trade worker. His English is fair, his self-confidence in this mixed group of leaders is also fair, at best (though it grows as he tells his story, and people react). He talks about what America has meant for his family, particularly his children, who are attending college and on a path to great success.

After the fishbowl, we’re invited to react; one of my congregants speaks. He speaks about how deeply connected he feels to this man and this story, which is his story, too.

More appropriately, it is his father’s story. The details are different, but not by much. Substitute “Poland” for “Nicaragua” and “plumber” for “electrician,” and they are strikingly similar. My congregant hears the story as the story of his own father, willing to leave everything behind and start over, a stranger in a strange land.

We talked afterwards, and it was plain that the exercise had a tremendous effect on him. And while he’d already been sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, sympathy had now been replaced with empathy, even solidarity. In remembering where he came from, my congregant found himself in solidarity with the immigrant.

In his paper, Ernie quoted approvingly the passage from Leviticus 19, commanding us to love the stranger as we love ourselves, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is a great text, often cited when preaching about immigration. It is one of thirty-six places in Torah that command proper attitude and behavior toward the marginalized, economically disadvantaged sojourner. I am proud to be heir to a tradition that places this message at its heart, though I wonder at the thirty-six repetitions. Were our ancestors really so thick-headed and hard-hearted that they needed to hear the commandment thirty-six times?

Apparently so. I think I know why, and the answer lives in a text that isn’t often cited when speaking about immigration, but deserves to be. It is Deuteronomy chapter 6, beginning at verse 10. This passage, which directly follows the famous admonition to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might,” counsels mindfulness and humility in the presence of success and abundance.

We read:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you — great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant — and you eat, and you are satisfied, take heed that you do not forget the Lord who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

To fully understand the force of this text we must read it in light of the commandment “when you eat, and you are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.” Note the sequence: Eat. Be satisfied. Bless God. That clear sequence becomes hopelessly muddled when we take possession of great and flourishing cities that we did not build, and houses filled with things we didn’t buy. How can we remember to be grateful and bless God when we drink from cisterns we didn’t hew, filled with rain that fell long before we arrived on the scene?

And so “eat, be satisfied, and bless” is replaced by “eat, be satisfied….and forget.” And not just any sort of forgetfulness. No. In the presence of easy abundance, gratitude is replaced by the worst sort of forgetfulness: the smug, willful forgetfulness of the second- or third- or tenth-generation native who looks with contempt upon the present-day immigrant.

Our congregations, whatever their ethnic or economic makeup, all have their share of these types, don’t they? As one former Texas governor might have described these folks, “they’re born on third and think they hit a triple.” They are ignorant of their place in the grand narrative of slavery and redemption. Having forgotten that they were slaves in Egypt, they are unable to muster sympathy for today’s oppressed. When they do recall their past, it is to draw unfavorable contrasts between their ancestors and today’s “illegals.”

You’ve heard them: “Our grandparents did it by the book,” they say smugly, forgetting in the first instance that it was a very different book, and — even more to the point — forgetting that when the situation called for it, they didn’t do it by the book. Who are their grandparents, after all? They are the people who memorized a few words of English to fake their way past a literacy test at Ellis Island. They are the people who stuffed socks into a boot at the Port of Galveston to disguise a disqualifying limp. They are the people who lied about a waiting job, bluffing their way onto these shores so they could work their tails off and build a better life for their grandchildren. And we, those very grandchildren, have the gall to stand on third base, complaining about “anchor babies” and the Mexican license plates in the carpool line at our kids’ school. Our forgetting is so complete, we don’t even remember to be ashamed of ourselves.

Community organizing, to the degree that it brings forgetful descendants into contact with their living, breathing ancestors, is an antidote to that forgetfulness. When the Nicaraguan electrician tells his story to the Jewish businessman, forgetfulness is banished. When that businessman becomes a leader in a broad-based community organization, and his presence lends legitimacy to an organization that some of his peers would rather delegitimize, forgetfulness is banished. When that organization gathers steam and takes on a long-serving and powerful County Sheriff, publicly holding him accountable for the unjust and illegal actions of his deputies, forgetfulness is banished. Community organizing is the antidote to the smug and willful forgetfulness that keeps us from knowing the stranger, and loving him as we love ourselves.

Deuteronomy chapter six concludes:

When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as He has commanded us.”

To which I can only add: Amen.

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