Dvar Torah on Parashat Balak as presented at the ACC-GTM 2018 Dallas Convention
It feels like I was just here….
One year ago, we gathered in Las Vegas and I stood before you and talked about how the world changed in January of 2016. All that we thought was right and just was turned on its ear…..a new president came into power from a model that most of us could understand…..A president and an administration that brought back into the mainstream violent, exclusionary, and racist language not seen in mainstream politics in decades. We watched hate crimes take place against Muslims, and deplorable actions and threats against marginalized populations. We have watched environmental polices be stricken from the books…rights stripped from those who identify as transgender, LGBTQ, those who depend on the government for affordable and accessible health care, access to public education, and on and on….you can add to the list.
Let’s not forget that each and every day…our president hits the airwaves using twitter to spew forth often incorrect, misleading or just plain and simple lies…what a year it has been.
And so here we are, gathered once again, this time here in Dallas, Texas, has anything changed…I am afraid not. More than that, it is worse!
And we come this morning to Parashat Balak….and out favorite talking Donkey….
Two years in a row, I have the opportunity to share with you words and actions spoken by a talking Ass!
And for those of us who thought the Trump administration had lost its power to shock us, the last couple of weeks has been a rude awakening. From images of caged migrant children sleeping under space blankets to parents facing deportation proceedings alone, the federal government’s forcible separation of families at the border has shocked Americans’ consciences in a way that transcends ideology.
In today’s Torah portion Balak, we read the prophetic words:
“Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov Mishkenoteha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
These words are how we began our morning service. As we set forth in prayer, these magical words that inspire and uplift, reminding us of how we see and understand ourselves.
Without boasting, I think it is safe to say what our tents represent. We know that our Jewish values are good ones and we aspire to live up to them. We promote social justice and the world’s improvement (Tikkun Olam) by assisting the poor, the homeless, the needy, the victims of persecution and neglect, the widow and the orphan.
Our goodly tents and dwelling places require us to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” to “beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.”
They also remind us of the commandment repeated more than any other in the first five books of the Bible:
“Know you the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No, Mr. Sessions, no President Trump, our bible does not talk about tearing apart families, taking children away from their parents…..rather it reminds us to remember that each of us stood where they stand…..trying to flee a place of tyranny to a place of freedom.
Our tents are tents of justice and freedom for all. Our tents are just like Abraham’s - open on all sides – “Or Ha goyim” a light unto the nations, so that all can be welcomed.
That is what the United States is called upon to be, that is what we have always been and it’s why the actions that we have witnessed in the past few weeks are so despicable.
The policy of separating migrant children from their parents is unconscionable. Yes, in recent days the president issued an executive order reversing the order that he gave causing the crisis that we currently find ourselves in. That more than 2,300 children are now unaccounted for is the tragic result of the immoral decision to use the threat of family separation as a ‘deterrent’ to immigration combined with gross incompetence by those charged with overseeing immigration enforcement. How they will be reunited with their parents, if ever continues to be one of the more horrific outcomes of this despicable action by our president. That they had no plan to be able to handle the number of children or now the number of parents and children who together will now be held in encampments is inhumane but not a surprise.
“The reported physical mistreatment of minors, including pregnant teens and those who have recently given birth, as well as the separation of children as young as 18 months old from their parents, is just horrific.
Our Jewish tradition calls on us to welcome the stranger, to treat immigrants fairly, and to empathize with the widow, the stranger, and the orphan because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. The inhumane treatment of migrant children and parents is a clear indication that the U.S. government has fallen far short of this standard. We all need to do better, lest this shameful chapter in our nation’s history come to define our future.
There are key moments in our story that change our humanity. As Jews we know something about how fraught with danger is journeying to freedom’s call. To hear that children are being taken away to take a bath or shower takes us back to memories that in our wildest dreams we could never imagine.
And so how much worse it was that the other day, biblical quotations were being used at the highest levels of our government to sanction the separation of children from their parents.
Last Thursday, Attorney General Sessions used a bible verse to defend his department’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border from Mexico, suggesting that God supports the government in separating immigrant parents from their children. He cited the Apostle Paul and what he suggested was the clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.
According to John Fea, a professor of American history “there are two dominant places in American history where Romans 13 is invoked “One was during the American Revolution when it was invoked by the loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.” The other, Fea said “is in the 1840’s and 1850’s, when Romans 13 was invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery was wrong. This is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”
While the adage to follow the law of the land is true, neither Paul or Jesus demanded blind obedience to the government without consideration of the higher moral teaching which is that every government must answer to the higher calling of being under God’s law. If only Mr. Sessions had gone on to read the rest of the verses which say “Love your neighbor as yourself’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
How Mr. Sessions, if that same Bible, same book, same chapter says “Love does no harm to a neighbor,” are your actions acts of neighborliness? How is separating a child from his/her parents an act of love?
I will leave it to other scholars who are experts in New Testament to comment on the use of these quotes to defend this heinous act.
Maybe the leaders of our government forgot that welcoming the stranger is spoken of 36 times in our bible…verses about our responsibility for the stranger in our midst:
“Don’t wrong a sojourner, for you were sojourner in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22)
“And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him for yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19)
“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that your Eternal God redeemed you there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
Just a few days ago, we celebrated flag day. We rejoice in the freedoms that we have for all our citizens. And yes, this includes immigrants who are seeking refuge, sometimes from persecution, sometimes looking for economic prosperity.
Recent enactment of these previously unimaginable policies is not the America I want, in which a converted Walmart not far from here is holding nearly 1,500 immigrant children separated from their parents.
We must advocate for the immediate end of all separations of families. It is contrary our Moral compass and it must stop!
We must speak about probationary asylum of families from Honduras, El Salvador, and other Central American countries that are under extreme pressure of violence and yes, and come to this country to escape it and, to investigate each case on its merit.
But we must also certainly retain our humanity and our sense of history. We can never forget that we are a people whose lives have been repeatedly destroyed because of hatred and persecution. We know what it means to not be prevented from immigrating or seeking shelter.
The treaty on Asylum and Refugees was created after World War II because of the experience of Jews who were denied asylum. We need to be on the right side of history as we deal with the complicated issues regarding immigration and status in the United States today.
But never may we forget where we came from. We are all ultimately immigrants in this country under a flag of democracy which we treasure.
We are committed to partnering with the Religious Action Center and others in this important work.
Singer and songwriter Michael Ochs adapted this poem, originally written as a response to the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group:
There Was Nobody Left (M. Ochs)
First they came after the Muslims and I didn’t speak up because I’m not a Muslim.
Then they came after the Mexicans and I said nothing because I’m not Mexican.
Then they went after African Americans and I stayed quiet because I’m not African American.
Then they came after the LGBTQ community and I was silent because I’m not LGBTQ.
Then they went after the press and I looked the other way because I’m not a member of the press.
Then they went after immigrants and I thought it was ok because I’m not an immigrant.
Then they came after me and my rights — and there was nobody left to speak out on my behalf.
I leave you this morning with the beautiful and tantalizing words from the prophet Micah, the Haftarah portion which accompanies this week’s Parasha:
“God has told you, human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom.”
Balaam‘ s message to us is an important one for us today…Balaam clearly saw into the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and he captured our character.
It is that character that requires us to speak out, to scream at the top of of lungs if necessary and to act to achieve changes.
With God’s help may Balaam’s vision and Micah’s prayer always inspire us and may our tents always be open to the stranger, for we know what it was like to be one.
Ken Zy’hi Ratzon….May it be so.
With thanks to my colleague and partner Rabbi Shira Joseph for her sharing her inspirational words with me