It has been ten days since our 45th president has been sworn into office, and already he has enacted many executive orders. One of his first ones was his pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. In another he ordered punishments for cities shielding illegal immigrants, and in a third an order to block entry of refugees from war-torn Syria and suspend the entry of any immigrants from Muslim-majority Middle Eastern and African countries Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen. These and other directives have led to mass protests, fear, and sleepless nights for many Americans.
Surely, the safety and security of our nation must be ensured. But what are our obligations to society’s most vulnerable members? The book of Exodus has this to say: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. The Bible appreciates how common it is for people to take advantage of society’s weakest, most marginal members, and fears that an appeal to sympathy alone would be insufficient to motivate people to act sensitively. It thus adds a “kicker” to the second of these commandments, warning those who mistreat widows and orphans that “your own wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:23) Concerning strangers, the Bible claims that they are the sole category of people whom God is identified as loving. “And God loves the stranger.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)
Because Jews have historically been subjected to frequent expulsions, we are all too familiar with the need for help getting settled in a new community and with the reciprocal imperative to provide aid to others. Ample precedent in our historical experience make many Americans feel sympathetic to those in need of a new home due to persecution. We need to look no further than the tragedy of the Holocaust to understand that peoples’ lives are lost when refugees who are fleeing for their lives are refused sanctuary –and that every day counts. Who can remain silent at the images of Jewish and other men, women and children who were turned away while attempting to flee Nazi Germany? Whose heart does not stir when we read or song Emma Lazarus’ poem affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” For us Americans, the sentiment in favor of immigration also grows from the undeniable fact that the United States, the greatest experiment in pluralism in history, has gained tremendously and continues to benefit from the economic and cultural contributions of immigrants from all over the world.
There are more than thirty references in the Bible related to loving the strangers. The frequency of the command suggests that strangers and foreigners must have had a difficult time finding acceptance in society, as is often the case today. The Bible gives an explicitly stated reason for the commandment to love the stranger, calling on the Israelite’s compassion: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In this way, the Israelites are told to be empathetic to all strangers, since they themselves were strangers in Egypt for many centuries.
I am proud to be a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an organization that has advocated that our government maintain its proud legacy of welcoming refugees and provide meaningful opportunity to all who seek asylum. In addition, it calls on our government to reject policy proposals that would halt or limit or curtail funding for refugee resettlement in the U.S or prioritize certain refugees over others.
One of the most eloquent statements about the value of human life comes from a very odd source: the admonition administered by ancient Jewish courts to witnesses testifying in capital cases. In addition to the expected warnings against perjury, the judges offered a commentary on why God originally populated the world with only one person, Adam. “To teach you,” the witnesses were warned, that “whoever destroys one life is considered by the Torah as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Each human life has infinite value, and we cannot stand idly by when we see something that we know is just not right. The long and historical Jewish involvement in human rights and civil rights movements—even in those societies where Jews already have had equal rights—is an outgrowth of this 3000 year old reminder from the Bible, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We cannot stand idly by. We must lift our voices against injustice and in support of our core Jewish and American values. We must financially support the organizations and individuals who stand up for these core values and for justice. As Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”