Judea Reform Congregation D’var Torah, Parashat Va’era, 5777/January 27, 2017 (the day an executive order slammed the door on refugees).
I had a tremendous privilege this morning, to represent our Jewish tradition at a rally in downtown Durham focused on our country’s policies with respect to immigrants and refugees. Following nearly a dozen people who have sought and found refuge in America through various avenues, and who now live in fear about their own status or that of family members, I spoke about the ways in which both Torah’s teaching and my own people’s history compel me to stand up for the immigrant and the refugee. Though time constraints didn’t allow me to teach from the parasha this morning, there is a lesson embedded within it that speaks directly to this moment.
It is based on Exodus 6:6-8, in which God tells Moses to
“[s]ay, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Eternal One. I will bring you out from the labors of the Egyptians and free you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal One, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal One.'”
These verses are sometimes referred to as the “blueprint for deliverance.” God promises Moses that the Israelites would make their way from Egyptian servitude and degradation to freedom and exaltation, and that they would ultimately come home again. Four verbs appearing in quick succession in the first verse lay out the program, and have gained an additional significance in Jewish practice as the source of our four cups at the Pesach Seder. vehotzeiti. vehitzalti. vega’alti. velakachti. “I will bring you out.” “I will free you.” “I will redeem you.” “I will take you.”
A brilliant commentary of the Kli Yakar paints an incredibly rich picture of this program, and of what it might have felt like to live it as an Israelite in those days. He develops the lesson by hearkening back to God’s words to Abraham (Gen 15:13), “Know well your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years,” and recognizing similarities between that verse and the one in Exodus. Listen to the words spoken to Abraham again: “Strangers.” “Not theirs.” “Enslaved.” “Oppressed.”
As he sees it, first comes dislocation, and the accompanying alienation. Abraham’s descendants are geographically removed from their home in Eretz Yisrael, and a byproduct of that move is a feeling of distance from God’s presence, a richuk hashekhinah. Dislocated and alienated, they are ripe for subjugation, no longer existing economically free. Finally, having lost their actual home, their sense of home, and their capacity to earn a living, it is but a short step to the oppression and humiliation that often lands on society’s have-nots.
So God lays it out for Abraham way back at the beginning, and then tells Moses just how the undoing of this state of affairs will happen: in reverse. “I will bring you out from beneath the oppressive burden…” First, stop the humiliation, the beatings and the persecution. “Next, I will save you from slavery to them…” Economic security comes next. “I will redeem you with an outstretched hand…” That is to say, I will lift you out of the geographical dislocation, bringing you home. Finally, “I will take you to me…” Using language from the realm of marriage, God promises that the geographical homecoming will be accompanied by the end of that spiritual alienation, a People and their God joined together again.
This morning I stood side-by-side with people who have left everything in order to stay alive amidst war, privation, and persecution. They look to this land, to our community, for a sense of home, a sense of belonging, a chance to make a living, and, it should go without saying, the opportunity to live free of the oppression and persecution that led them here in the first place. America has frequently lived up to its self-image as a place of refuge and freedom. Frequently enough that a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo can say to a crowd in downtown Durham on a chilly morning, with no irony or pessimism, “I wanted to come here because we know America is the place where it doesn’t matter what color you are.”
But we know that we have frequently missed the mark. We Jews know it all too well, having had the doors – American doors – closed in our face as Nazism engulfed Europe. Now is a moment of reckoning. Whose side are we on? God’s, or Pharaoh’s?
I am not being hyperbolic, nor am I being overly simplistic. These are the facts. The executive order putting a pause of one hundred twenty days on refugee resettlement will destroy families, livelihoods, and lives. As we sit in our sanctuary, refugees have sold everything they own and given up their homes in transit camps where they’ve stayed for years. They’ve done this because their numbers have come up. They’ve been vetted, extremely, and have passed the security and medical clearances that allow them to board a plane for America.
What happens to them in the aftermath of an executive order? Their medical and security clearances will expire during the “pause.” They will go back to a camp that no longer has a place for them, having given up their possessions in advance of the trip. And they will wait…and wait…and wait.
And when the wheels start turning again, if they are lucky enough to get back to that airport, who will greet them when they land? The pause and the smaller numbers of refugees allowed once it’s lifted will mean a drastic and sudden decrease in funds for refugee resettlement agencies. Tireless workers doing it much more for love than for money will be out of work during this pause, and will need to find jobs elsewhere. Agencies like our local office of CWS will need months or years to rebuild the capacity lost in a matter of weeks.
As the verse teaches it, when the end of the story is written, we shall come to know. When the end of the story is written, what will we have done? When the end of the story is written, what will we be able to tell our children? When the end of the story is written, with whom will we be standing?