The Obligation to Support Refugees
Contrary to popular belief, Reform Judaism does believe in obligations, particularly moral imperatives central to our tradition. Among these is the obligation to care for the most vulnerable of society; today, refugees fall into this category. We have a Jewish duty to care for refugees even and especially when our national government refuses to do so.
Our Sacred Obligation to Love the Refugee in a Time of Hatred
This week’s Torah reading opens with God’s instruction to Moses: וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “And you shall command the Children of Israel” (Ex. 27:20). This opening phrase invites reflection on what it means to be commanded, to receive into one’s life a system of mitzvot.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the preeminent scholar and exemplar of ethical Jewish life in the mid-twentieth century, considered mitzvot to be essential to being human. Rejecting Rene Descartes’ self-centered formulation “I think, therefore I am,” Heschel insisted instead “I am commanded—therefore I am.” For Heschel, what it means to be human is to be able to feel the suffering of others and then to know that we must respond to that suffering. We are called to action, obligated to step forward and work for the betterment of humankind.
Lest we be confused, let me clarify that Reform Judaism does believe in obligation, especially as Rabbi Heschel describes it. Ever since our first official platform in 1885, Reform Judaism has “accept[ed] as binding [Judaism’s] moral laws,” rejecting only its ritual requirements. We consider mitzvot to be “sacred obligations,” moral imperatives that demand our response. Each of us has the freedom to make informed choices about how to live up to those obligations, but we abandon our Jewish duty if we ignore them altogether.
The temptation to turn away from mitzvot, to pretend conveniently as if they weren’t there, is not an innovation of the modern age. Indeed, our ancient texts often describe the titanic struggle within every human being, the internal conflict that pits self-preservation against working for the benefit of others. One midrash on the opening of this week’s Torah portion serves as an example.
We are instructed in the Torah this week to keep the eternal light burning always. The midrash teaches that the eternal light is a symbol for God’s mitzvot, which chase away the darkness by bringing light into the world. But before the lamp of mitzvot can shine, it must be kindled, and this kindling—this performing of the good deed itself—is no easy task. We read in the midrash:
It often happens that when one is eager to fulfil a mitzvah, the Evil Inclination within him dissuades him, saying: “Why do you want to perform this command and diminish your wealth? Instead of giving away to others, give it to your own children.” But the Good Inclination says to him: “Give rather to a pious cause; for … just as the light of one candle is undiminished even if a million other candles are kindled from it, so will one who gives towards the fulfilment of any commandment not truly suffer any loss.
In this midrash, we see the classic image of the two internal voices. The evil inclination says, “Why are you breaking your head for someone else? Protect yourself, and you’ll be better for it.” But the good inclination counters, “No. This is the right thing to do. And what’s more, if you do this good deed, then others will follow, and others will follow from that, until there’s so much goodness shining in the world, you’ll have reaped far more from this one action than you ever had to give away.” Doing mitzvot is both the right thing to do and, in the end, it brings much more reward than sacrifice.
As many of you know, our congregation had followed this approach in responding to the world refugee crisis. Every day, 34,000 people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict or persecution, and we have embraced our Jewish duty to help where we can. This sacred obligation emerges from the Torah’s repeated insistence, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The so-called “stranger” of the bible is the refugees of today. So the commandment to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19) applies directly to the current refugee situation.
Last fall, our congregation was eager to be one of the first synagogues to join the Welcome Campaign coordinated by HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement agency, publicly declaring our support for refugee resettlement in the United States. In the months since, we have partnered with Jewish Vocational Services on a number of initiatives. We’ve organized a coat drive, sponsored a public forum, and hosted a birthday party for local refugee children.
But when a bat mitzvah student sat on the couch in my office yesterday asking about how to volunteer setting up the homes of newly resettled refugees, I had to tell her to find a different mitzvah project. Because right now, the United States isn’t welcoming any refugees. On Monday, President Trump issued an executive order halting America’s refugee resettlement process, instantly shutting down life-saving programs around the country and turning away thousands of innocent victims who were on target to settle here in the next four months. When President Trump first tried to enact this measure last month, every single Jewish movement in America opposed it. And when the administration promulgated this slightly revised version, the Reform Movement, among many other Jewish organizations, loudly voiced opposition.
Ordinarily, my sermons and classes about refugees have focused on the actions we can take in our own community to help refugees who are our neighbors. Indeed, we are currently in Stand with Muslim Neighbors Week, an initiative organized by Kansas Interfaith Action, and I’d planned for months to speak tonight about our wonderful volunteer opportunities with Jewish Vocational Services. But now, I can’t send you to JVS to volunteer because—as of Monday of this week—JVS has massively cut back in their refugee department, enacting layoffs and furloughs. What the Trump administration is calling a 120-day “delay” is anything but: Anyone who would have been resettled in the next four months risks losing their window of opportunity because their security clearances are likely to expire. And if your security clearance expires, you have to start the whole two-year process over again. This is no minor pause to be lifted in four months; it’s a targeted attack against resettlement efforts, and it’s already having major impact.
The rationale for the refugee ban is national security. As I’ve mentioned before, I acknowledge that there is some risk in resettling refugees to the United States. However, that risk historically has proven to be very small. Of the 745,000 refugees resettled in America since 9/11, only two have been arrested for terrorism-related crimes – they provided aid to al-Qaeda in Iraq. As some have noted, when those two refugees were arrested, American temporarily stopped resettling Iraqi refugees; then, once 58,000 Iraqi refugees were re-vetted and proven (again) to be safe, resettlement resumed as normal.
"Even so,” some will ask, “is even a small amount of risk worth it?” Our tradition answers unequivocally: Yes. To look out only for ourselves is to follow the temptations of the evil inclination. Even when risk is involved, we must do the right thing. That’s why the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City unanimously endorsed a statement that advocates for the resettlement of refugees in our city. That’s why Congregation B’nai Jehudah remains a stalwart advocate of the most vulnerable people on the planet. And that’s why each one of us faces the challenge to consider how we will respond to this call for compassion and courage, to stand up for the rejected and oppressed people we have the ability to help and whom our tradition commands us to love.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar the Great teaches: “Why does Torah warn 36 times—and some say 46 times—about [wronging] the stranger? Because wickedness is [part of] human nature” (Bava Metzia 59b). Eleazar knows the human heart – our natural impulse is to look out for ourselves. And that’s precisely why we have the Torah, to inspire us to transcend our animal instinct, to become fully human through the fulfillment of our sacred obligations.
This weekend is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, the Shabbat that immediately precedes the holiday of Purim. It is called Shabbat Zachor because we are commanded to remember the wicked deeds that have been enacted against us throughout our history. We have always sought life, and through human courage and compassion, we have persisted generation after generation.
The Psalmist teaches that the one who desires life is the one who “shuns evil and does good / who seeks peace and pursues it” (Ps. 34:15). In the words of Rav-Hazzan Scott Sokol:
May we remember that peace does not come easily, that desiring it is only the first step. Each of us individually and all of us collectively must pursue the vision of peace with our hearts and minds focused on its attainment. In the dark times and in the light, may we draw strength from one another and from the One Whose gift of life unites us in holy purpose.
And let us say, Amen.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man? (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1965) p. 111.
 1885 Pittsburgh Platform: http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/declaration-principles/
 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism: http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/statement-principles-reform-judaism/
 Exodus Rabbah 36:3.
 Over 2,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa alone are nearing the end of their refugee screening process and are deemed the “most vulnerable.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/trumps-refugee-ban-is-a-matter-of-life-and-death-for-some-like-a-1-year-old-with-cancer/2017/01/30/4c8e4aae-e711-11e6-903d-9b11ed7d8d2a_story.html?utm_term=.49ace6c8cc01
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