Let’s face it—the High Holy Days are when we are supposed to talk about what we don’t want to talk about.
It’s when we are supposed to confess our sins. No, that is not a Christian thing. It’s a Jewish thing. We were doing so a thousand years before Christianity was born. We no longer sacrifice goats. We use our words. Like our mothers taught us: Use your words. In the synagogue we use a lot of words. We confess ritualistically, through prayer.
One of those prayers, which we will recite on Yom Kippur, is called Ashamnu. You may have said it many times over the years without realizing that it goes in alphabetical order. The first letter of every sin goes straight through the aleph-bet from aleph to tav. The translators of the Reform prayer book wanted to replicate that in English. They got all the way to X and then said, "What sin begins with X?"
Well, it turns out that some smart guy realized that there is a very real, very significant sin that starts with X. It’s not a word you hear that often, unless you are preparing for the SATs or for a championship Scrabble tournament. But it’s a word we should all know. It’s a problem that we are all dealing with. It’s so important that I am devoting a whole sermon to it. The word is xenophobia. It means fear or hatred of the foreigner or stranger.
We live in xenophobic times. Yes, I know that immigration has been an issue throughout American history, and world history, but I do not recall it ever being more so in my lifetime than now.
Can we deny that it is a huge factor in our current presidential election? Can we deny that it is a huge factor in Brexit—the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union?
Can we deny that it is a huge factor in the global rise of right-wing, so called populist movements in Greece, Hungary, Austria, France, Russia… and even Israel?
The call to halt migrations… the call to build walls… the call to ban Muslims… are birthed by real issues… but the radical solutions are driven by a phobia—an unreasonable fear or hatred—that clouds our mind and distorts our judgment.
Our history and our heritage have a lot to say about this. That is what I want to talk about this evening. At another time we might examine the economic and political factors responsible for the rise of xenophobia. But today I want to convey how strongly Judaism and the Jewish experience abhor xenophobia. How it contradicts the loftiest moral impulses of the Judeo-Christian heritage. How ultimately we are taught not to hate the stranger, but to love him.
Our Torah commences with the extraordinary declaration that the human being is created in the image of God.
Our Torah commands that we are to pursue holiness and that the highest expression of that holiness is to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Our Torah teaches, and this refrain repeats itself over and over again, "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
That is the classic statement of Jewish empathy. "For you were strangers." You have been there. You know what it is like. You were oppressed. You were outcasts. You know the heart of shunned and the exploited. You can more than sympathize; you can empathize because you lived through it.
I was in Egypt? I was at Sinai? How so? It’s called "corporate memory." We are part of a people that remember everything, that never forgets. As one of the people, as a member of the tribe, we are a part of that collective experience.
The whole point of the Passover Seder, arguably Judaism’s most important ritual, is to reenact the experience of liberation from slavery. And what is the single most important line of the Haggadah? B’cal dor hayav adam lirot et atmo k’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim. "In every generation each person must see himself as if he went out from Egypt."
K’ilu. As if. Use your imagination, your moral imagination. Put yourself in your ancestors' shoes. Don’t forget your roots, your origins, where you came from, what you went through. It explains what you are made of. It explains who you are.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses, speaking for God, says: “You shall not oppress a stranger," v’atem yadatem et nefesh hager, for you know the nefesh, the soul, the deepest feelings, of the stranger, "having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt" (23:9).
Again, in Leviticus: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (19:33).
Again, in Deuteronomy: "For the Lord your God… upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger… You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (10:17-19).
Who are the strangers? They are the powerless. They are the poor. They are the marginalized. They are the immigrant. And they are the precisely the people we are commanded to help.
This summer I read a new book called The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner. The author explores why certain times and places give rise to revolutionary creativity. One of the places he chronicles is turn-of-the century Vienna, and its greatest genius, Sigmund Freud. Weiner writes, "As an immigrant, Freud was well positioned for greatness. A disproportionately large number of geniuses were geographically displaced, voluntarily or otherwise. One survey of 20th century geniuses found that 1/5th were first or second generation immigrants."
"That dynamic holds true today,"he continues. "Foreign born immigrants account for only 13% of the US population but have nearly a third of all US patents granted. They are 25% of all US Nobel laureates."
To chronicle the contribution of immigrants to this country would take me forever. Anyone with a sense of history appreciates this. We are often called a nation of immigrants, and most of us in this sanctuary are not more than three or four generations removed from the immigrant experience ourselves. Our personal history and our people’s history and our country’s history all reinforce each other. We know the heart of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Poland and Russia and Germany.
Back in May, President Obama gave a remarkable speech, right here in New Jersey, at Rutgers. I know at least one member of the congregation was there, celebrating her son’s graduation. I urge you to find it online and read the whole thing. It is funny and it is wise. In that speech President Obama made a point about xenophobia: "Building walls," he said, "won’t boost our economy, and it won’t enhance our security either. Isolating or disparaging Muslims… is not just a betrayal of our values, not just a betrayal of who we are; it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism. [To] blame our challenges on immigrants, that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe. That’s how we became America. Why would we want to stop it now?"
On this Yom Kippur, let’s talk about what we don’t want to talk about. And let’s not let ourselves off too easy. The late, great philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in a democratic society, "some are guilty; all our responsible."
I would hope that we are not blatant racists. I would hope that we are not obviously xenophobic.
But so long as we leave bi-partisan immigration reform in limbo, are we not accountable? So long as we respond to the refugee crisis with a helpless shrug, are we not culpable? So long as we fail to confront demagoguery, are we not liable?
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu….
We have all committed wrongs; together we confess these sins. There was violence, weakness of will, xenophobia.
V’al kulam, eloha selichot, salach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
For all these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Forgive us; pardon us, grant us atonement… and spur us to new resolve and new activism in this new year.
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