Welcome Home

January 14, 2018

Delivered at Congregation Beth Israel of Austin

As part of their "Welcoming the Stranger" MLK Weekend events

(The guests referred to below included refugees, immigrants, and refugee aid workers from local partner organizations who joined the Jewish community for worship and learning.) 

 

What does it feel like to leave the only home you’ve ever known?


That is a question you could ask any generation in human history. They say change is the only constant, and one constant type of change is migration -- the act of leaving one place for another.


In the animal kingdom, migration is natural. My dad raises monarch butterflies as a hobby. He plants milkweed where they lay eggs. He tends the caterpillars as they feed and grow and transform into butterflies. In the winter, monarchs fly up to 3,000 miles to a mountain refuge in Mexico to escape winter temperatures. Salmon swim upstream to spawn. Birds fly south for the winter. 


Animal migration is cyclical and seasonal, in tune with the rhythms of the world. It is natural and beautiful and even mysterious.


In the human world, migration is most often unnatural, forced, a disruption of the rhythms of life. It is not an orderly cycle but a sickening ordeal. It can be caused by pressures -- economic, political, religious -- or tragedies -- famine, war, oppression, genocide. It can be the expression of desperation running on fumes of hope, the desire for a better life, or simply the chance to live at all. Call to mind the faces of Syrian refugees and Rohingya Muslims in makeshift boats, knowing they had to leave without knowing where they would end up.


This Shabbat, in Va’era, the second parsha in the book of Exodus, we enter the drama of one of our culture’s greatest migration stories, just as we do each Passover. It is a story of people who have had enough of enslavement and persecution. People who want something better for themselves or at least for their children.


It is a story of people who have decided it is time to act, rather than be acted upon. “I have heard the outcry of the Israelites,” God says to Moses (Exod. 6:5), “and I have remembered My covenant.” When the Israelites cry out against their own degradation, the wheels of redemption begin to turn. It is the first sign that they are ready: the act of leaving everything you’ve ever known is not for the faint of heart. There will be many obstacles in their way: powerful rulers, hostile forces, harsh deserts and unforgiving seas. Some won’t survive the journey.


What does it feel like to leave the only home you’ve ever known?


It’s a wonder anyone makes the journey. We fear nothing more than the unknown. Some of the Israelites wanted to turn back; their selective memories of security in slavery seduced them into a false nostalgia. At least in Egypt, some said, we knew where our next meal was coming from! More amazing is that most of them had the faith and fortitude to continue. 


Would I have made it? I ask myself sometimes. Honestly, I’m not sure. My grandparents did it. Yours did too, or your great-grandparents -- or you. Migration is a constant that links all of our stories. The first Pilgrims saw themselves as new Israelites, crossing the sea from oppression to a new land of freedom. The native peoples already living here were forced into disruptive migrations of their own, as were the people from African shores who, through enslaved labor, built this country no less than those who came here by free will. 


We are all the children of people who left home and set out for the unknown, by choice and by force.


But what do I -- the privileged grandson of immigrants, the native-born never-had-to-flee-in-my-life American -- what could I possibly know about leaving everything I have, everything I know, for a new country, a new language, a new life?


That’s why the Torah reminds us so often in so many ways that we were strangers. Because when you’re settled, even one generation after migration, you forget. You forget what it feels like to take only what you can carry, to bribe a border guard, to forge papers and pay a smuggler, to cross a desert or an ocean, to feel helpless and lost. 


So God reminds us, even by self-identifying as the savior of strangers: “I am Adonai your God, who led you out of Egypt to be your God!” And Moses commands us: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 22:20).

 

What does it feel like to leave the only home you’ve ever known? 


This Shabbat, this MLK weekend, we are blessed by the presence of guests who know how to answer this question. You remind us that one generation’s strangers are the next generation’s neighbors.

 

You remind me of my grandparents.


As Jews, we are called on again in this generation, as the children of strangers, the neighbors of strangers, those who know the heart of the stranger -- we are called on to love the stranger (see e.g. Lev 19:34). In our tradition, love is not a feeling, but an action, a commitment, a set of responsibilities. 


This weekend, we’re exploring the layers of that command to love -- through education, service, organizing, and advocacy. On behalf of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Texas, I am inspired by your work here and excited to partner with you and other congregations across the state. I applaud Beth Israel for signing the Brit Olam, a covenantal commitment to work for justice as part of the Union for Reform Judaism. In the words of this weekend’s theme, let’s continue to “reflect, learn, and act” together -- there is much work to be done!


In every generation, either we are strangers or we are those with the power to act in solidarity with the stranger. We cannot fulfill the command to love without the power to act. The moment demands that we become more powerful by joining together with allies across lines of difference -- faith, race, class, national origin, political party -- to enact a shared vision of a more compassionate, more just community and state.


By the way, there are too many people in this country whose families have been here many generations, but who have lost their living memory of immigration, and who feel like the American Dream has left them behind. They are strangers here too, in their own way, no less deserving of our love and allyship.


At the very least, loving the stranger must mean treating today’s immigrants how we would want to be treated, how we would have wanted our grandparents to be treated. As a people, we know what it means to leave a place. We know that when your family’s survival is at stake, you’ll do what needs to be done to get them to safety. Remember, the tactics Moses and Aaron and God used to get the Israelites out of Egypt were not pretty or polite. There was no reasonable legal pathway to leaving. And as Jews we celebrate as heroes the righteous gentiles of the 1930s and ‘40s who helped European Jews immigrate illegally with false papers and secret border crossings.


I’m not saying we should disregard the rule of law. But when people do what they have to do to get their family to safety, to a better life -- it should give us pause, because we know this story, too. We are here because our ancestors lived this story, too.


What does it feel like to leave the only home you’ve ever known?


For the Israelites, for our grandparents, for our neighbors here tonight, the full answer depends on what greets you when you get where you’re going. We have the power to turn the ugly disruption of human migration into the beauty of being welcomed home.


The only questions left for us are: Do we want to be allies of Pharaoh? Or do we want to move together toward making this home one step closer to a Promised Land for stranger and citizen alike?
 

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