The Torah portion that we will read in a few minutes—which you have just delved into with your hevruta partner—tells the story of Hagar and Ishmael—refugees, cast into the wilderness, with no direction home.
Their fate reminds recalls a classic Jewish joke from the 1930s, in which a German Jewish refugee walks into a travel agency and asks for a steamship ticket. The clerk inquires: “Where to?”
“That’s a tough question,” replied the Jew. “I wish I had an answer. Can I look at your globe?”
The clerk nods and hands over the globe. The Jew turns it again and again, carefully considering every continent and country. At long last, he raises his eyes to the clerk and asks: “Haven’t you got another globe?”
Like most Jewish jokes, this one conveys a quintessential truth: We are a nation of wanderers, mostly out of necessity rather than choice. Our people’s story has unfolded over four thousand years, in nearly every corner of the world, but the lesson at the heart of our experience has been remarkably consistent:
Remember that you are refugees.
Consider, now, just a sampling of our essential Jewish journeys, each an immigrant tale:
Our story begins with God’s call to Abraham: Lech l’chah—Leave your country, your birthplace, your ancestral home, and go to the land that I will show you.
Abraham and Sarah make that arduous voyage and settle in Canaan—but just two generations later, when the land is ravaged by famine, Jacob and his family depart again, seeking sustenance and sanctuary in Egypt.
Alas, in what would become a pattern for countless Jewish migrations to follow, our warm welcome in Egypt is short-lived. When Joseph dies, our fate takes a precipitous turn for the worse and we are enslaved for nearly two hundred years.
The next, paradigmatic passage comes as Moses leads us out of Egypt, to wander for four decades in the desert. Eventually Joshua leads us back into the Promised Land, where we prosper for a while—until we are repeatedly exiled, by Assyria, Babylon and Rome.
During the Middle Ages, we seek shelter from one land to the next, enduring a cruel spell of expulsions, from Egypt in 1290, France in 1394 and, most infamously, Spain in 1492.
And our narrative of exile continues into modernity. Between 1880 and 1920, over two and half million Jews found refuge in America. But after the First World War, amidst a wave of nativist bigotry, the United States shut its doors. And so, eighty years ago, in the desperate summer of 1939, the steamship St. Louis embarked upon what would be known as the “Voyage of the Damned.” The boat full of Jewish refugees set sail from Nazi Germany, bound for Cuba. Alas, when they arrived in Havana, the Cuban government revoked their landing permits and forced the ship to leave the harbor. The St. Louis sailed north, until its passengers could see the lights of Miami—but America refused to accept a single Jewish asylum-seeker. After Canada also declined to open its doors, the ship returned to Europe, where 254 of its passengers were eventually killed in the Shoah.
Even after the Holocaust, the migrations did not end. In 1948, 850,000 Jews were exiled from Iran and Arab lands including Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Syria and Tunisia. And over the last fifty years, we have journeyed en masse out of Russia and Ethiopia.
The Jewish people know what it is to flee for safety, to set out, against all odds, in search of a better life. We know what it is to be persecuted and held captive. And we know what it is to be denied entry, to find the doors closed in our darkest hour of need, to be sent back, against our will, to poverty, oppression and murder.
This is our history.
It is also the heart of this season’s liturgical story, the leitmotif that echoes through the Days of Awe.
That voyage commences exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah with Tisha B’Av, the mournful day that marks the destruction of the Temple and a host of other tragic exiles. Rabbi Alan Lew describes Tisha B’Av as the time when the walls of the Great House that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.
Next comes the month of Elul, which launches a forty-day wilderness passage to Yom Kippur, during which we wrestle with where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are headed.
Yom Kippur itself is full of immigrant imagery. Traditionally, it marks the world’s first expulsion, the day that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden. In the story of Jonah, the haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon, the reluctant prophet flees to Tarshish; when the sailors piloting the ship carrying him away ask his identity, Jonah describes himself as a Hebrew—an Ivri—meaning crosser of borders—a name that will come to define the Jewish people. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Yom Kippur concludes with Neilah, the Hour of the Locking of the Gates, when we plead with God to grant us entry before it is too late.
And then, just five days later, the whole season comes to an end with Sukkot, when we celebrate our forty years in the desert by dwelling in the frail, open huts that remind us of our utter vulnerability to changing world and weather—and our capacity to create a home wherever we find safe refuge.
Which brings us to today, Rosh Hashanah, smack in the middle of this seasonal journey.
You might think that given our historical experience and liturgical memory, we would always take to heart the Torah’s oft-repeated obligation:
You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
You might expect that as a tribe of immigrants and exiles, we would not need yet another reminder to seek justice for refugees, everywhere and always.
But then we arrive at our Torah portion for this Rosh Hashanah morning, which glaringly calls out the ways we fall short of our highest selves. The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a tale of profound moral failure. Everyone who wields power abuses it: Sarah, Abraham, and even God. I believe this passage is meant to disturb us, to sound an ominous—and ever-so-timely—warning against complacency and injustice in our own treatment of refugees.
The backstory to the reading begins in Genesis 16. Long unable to conceive a child, Sarah suggests that Abraham consort with her handmaid, Hagar, and sire a son through her. But when Abraham complies and Hagar quickly becomes pregnant, Sarah immediately regrets her request. She cruelly takes out her anger and jealousy on Hagar. Abraham enables this bad behavior, telling his wife, “Your servant is in your hands. Do with her what you want.” And alas, even God is callous to Hagar’s pain: when she attempts to run away, God sends an angel to bring her back with the unnerving message: “Return to your mistress and submit to her harsh treatment.”
When Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, a bad situation only turns worse. After Sarah finally delivers her own child, Isaac, she demands that Abraham get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. This time Abraham is troubled by his wife’s request, but God defends her and insists: “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.” So Abraham casts out his first born son, together with his long-suffering mother, exiling them into the howling desert with nothing but a morsel of bread and a small skin of water. They wander through the wilderness of Be’ersheva until Ishmael’s death seems imminent. At that point, their water exhausted, Hagar places her son under a bush and weeps at a distance, pleading that she not witness his dying. Only then, at the last desperate moment, does God finally intervene, opening Hagar’s eyes to a well that will sustain them on their journey.
Alas, this paradigmatic refugee story is all too timely this year. Today’s Hagars and Ishmael’s—or Juans and Marias—wander the desert along our southern border even as we speak, cast out with nowhere to go, spurned and ridiculed by people in power, separated from parents and children, alone in their hour of greatest need. But this time there is no God to magically intervene on their behalf.
So how can we learn from this tragic tale? What root causes underlie the hard-heartedness of its primary actors—and what do they teach us about our own response to refugees? A close reading of rabbinic commentary on this chapter yields insights that might yet guide us, here and now.
Consider a passage in the 4th century collection Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, in which our Sages wrestle with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Rabbi Akiba opens. In his telling, Sarah paints Ishmael as a sexual predator, claiming that he “ravished virgins and seduced married women.”
Rabbi Ishmael speaks next. In his version, Sarah accuses Hagar of idolatry.
Finally, Rabbi Elazar argues that Ishmael’s purported crime is homicidal bloodshed.
Nearly a thousand years later, two renowned medieval French commentators chime in.
Rashi presents Ishmael as a highway robber, while Chizkuni describes Hagar and Ishmael as misanthropic loners who “shunned civil society.”
[Bereshit Rabbah 53:11; Rashi on Genesis 21:10; Chizkuni on Genesis 21:20]
Does this language sound familiar?
Rapists and sex traffickers?
Murderous drug-dealing gang members?
Uncivilized, godless threats to our traditional way of life?
A century ago, the exact same libelous accusations were leveled at the Irish, Italians and, yes, the Jews flocking into America through Ellis Island.
In 2019, nothing has changed except the targets: Mexicans, Central Americans, Muslims.
This rotten fruit of fear and cowardice has endured over the ages. Alas, the same dark impulses that sickened the souls of Abraham and Sarah are alive and well in our United States today.
But there have always been other, brighter visions and voices. Another medieval French rabbi, David Kimchi, unequivocally rejects Abraham and Sarah’s deeds as cruel and immoral. He writes: “Sarah’s actions were not pleasing in God’s eyes. . . and Abraham did not prevent Sarah from doing what she did because he was concerned only with appearances.” Kimchi concludes: The reason this whole story is preserved for future generations is to teach ethical lessons, and to warn us not to indulge in injustice.
In America, our people have a proud history of organizations supporting refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish alike: HIAS and the Joint Distribution Committee have been doing this sacred labor for well over a century; today they are joined by youthful organizations like Bend the Arc and the Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
So which path shall we choose in the year-to-come?
Will we, like Abraham and Sarah, succumb to the fears that lead us into complacency and worse?
Or will we take to heart our people’s countless wanderings over time and space, and act in accord with Torah’s constant command to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees?
Will we cower before nativists?
Or will we, modern-day Hebrews, stand with our fellow border crossers?
My friends, our border crisis is complex, and there is plenty of room for political disagreement over policy. We can and should debate important questions around how to control our borders, properly vet refugees, and process asylum-seekers.
Like climate, this should not be a Democratic or Republican issue, not liberal or conservative. No party or ideology holds all the answers, and we need the best minds across the political spectrum working on creative solutions.
And we should recognize that many of the folks who work at Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies are doing the best they can under extremely trying circumstances.
But partisan debate should cease in the face of moral travesties.
Whatever your political orientation, it should never be acceptable to separate children from their parents.
It should never be acceptable to deny immigrants—legal or illegal—their basic human rights to decent food, shelter, and hygiene.
It should never acceptable to refer to refugees as invaders.
And it should never be acceptable to limit the number of refugees that we welcome to a paltry 18,000—down from 110,00 just two years ago and 231,000 under Ronald Reagan in 1981. As the number of refugees worldwide soars, due in no small part to the casualties of America’s foreign wars and greenhouse gas emissions, to bar our gates is to betray the core Jewish and American values that inspired the words of Emma Lazarus, emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
In fearful times, it is always tempting to divide the world into us and them, as Sarah and Abraham did with Hagar and Ishmael.
But in the end, there is no them—there’s only us. E pluribus unum—Out of Many, One. This is the strength of America, of the Jewish people, and of our own congregation. Our CABI community includes immigrants, refugees and Dreamers whose status is endangered by the Administration’s hardline policy. They are no less us than those whose families have been here for 150 years. So when we stand up for immigration justice, we are standing up for our own. And make no mistake, to quote Bruce Springsteen: We take care of our own. Then we take care of our migrant, freedom-loving brothers and sisters beyond CABI’s walls, because we are all one another’s keepers.
This is why many of us have spent the last three Tuesday evenings attending a terrific lifelong learning series facilitated by Sandy Berenter, discussing our obligation to refugees. It’s also why our board and staff will be making immigration rights one of our congregation’s two key social justice initiatives in 5780, along with climate change. (Yes, we’re organizing a task force; if you’re interested, again, contact me or our executive director, Tamara Ansotegui.) We have a great deal of hard but holy work to do.
This morning’s Torah portion exposes the fear that hardens the hearts of Abraham, Sarah, and even God. But it ends with hope, for unlike the human actors, God makes teshuvah and turns to a better, more compassionate path. As the reading ends, God is with Hagar and Ishmael. God hears them and blesses them with the assurance that they, too, shall become a great nation.
Our challenge is to emulate God, to turn in true teshuvah, to remember our people’s refugee journeys and draw up on that memory as a source of compassion and empathy, so that we might hear and bless those who make similar passages here and now.
In just ten days, we will celebrate Yom Kippur. At the end of that arduous, sacred occasion, we will arrive at Ne’ilah, the Hour of the Closing of the Gates. It’s a time that is both beautiful and urgent.
And yet. . . as the great sage Rabbeynu Yonah Gerondi reminds us, the gates of teshuvah never really close. Turning is always possible.
So when our nation fearfully seeks to bar its gates, our sacred Jewish task is to work in concert with the millions of our fellow Americans who are determined to keep them open.
Divided we will fall—but united in justice and mercy, we will stand.
P’tach lanu sha’ar—Let us open our gates, and in so doing, turn, again, to our Jewish and American dream of a land of liberty and justice, for all.