June 23, 2018 (10 Tamuz 5778)
On Wednesday, in the middle of the day, I was uncharacteristically on the Boston Common. It was a glorious day. Perfect weather. The sunlight shining. But I had a heavy heart.
I was on my way to the State House with a group from Temple Emanuel to protest our government’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents.
As we were walking up the hill to the rally which had not yet begun, my cell phone buzzed. A banner alert came across the screen with the news that the President, responding to public outcry across the political spectrum, planned to sign an order reversing the separation policy later that afternoon. Most successful rally ever!
So, the question arises, halfway up the hill – do you still go to the rally, or do you declare victory, grab a lemonade, and head home?
I want to dwell on that question this morning because it’s the question of this moment. It is tempting to feel our work here is done and to relax back into the warm celebration here this morning. But, in this as in so many things, our work is far from done.
Jailing families together is certainly better than separating children from parents, but that is damning with faint praise. George Takai, who was a child during one of the most shameful moments in American history, our internment of Japanese immigrants in camps, captured that vividly when he wrote last week, “At least during the internment… I and other children … were not pulled screaming from our mother’s arms… At least during the internment… are words I thought I would never utter.”
Beyond the still very real questions about what a new national policy toward immigrant families will be, what happens now with thousands of children who have already been separated from their parents? How do they find their way back to each other? Who can heal their trauma?
Doctor Tara Neubrand, a pediatric emergency physician, wrote about immigrant children ages 1 and 2, who were brought in by a caring foster family. One child literally clung to her foster mother. Did Doctor Neubrand have any suggestions, the foster mother asked, for bathing a child who experienced agony and terror whenever released from her arms? Another told her that her little one, “[A]ll day long, would just yell ‘Papi, Papi, Papi.’” These foster mothers were doing the best they could. Imagine the fate of a child in so many of the places children are being warehoused now, where they do not get that kind of sensitive care.
As Jews, we should be especially concerned. Not only does our Torah command us again and again to watch out for the vulnerable, for we were once the vulnerable, but our own history echoes in their cries.
Holocaust survivor Yoka Verdoner wrote: “When we were children, my siblings and I were also taken from our parents… The lasting damage inflicted by that separation reverberates to this day, decades hence.” She shares her brother’s words: “As a three-year-old child, I believe[d] that I must have made some terrible mistake to have caused my known world to disappear. I spend the rest of my life trying desperately not to make another mistake.”
Chukkat, our Torah portion today, shines a spotlight on Edom, whose core sin is that when we, the Jewish people, were immigrants and refugees fleeing for our lives, they completely closed their borders and would do nothing to give us safe passage. And it reminds us that hardened hearts are the province of Pharaoh and Edom. We must not harden our own.
In case we missed that message, the Torah follows up with an exclamation point. We usually speak about Moses losing the right to go into the land because he hit the rock in anger, as Joe spoke about so beautifully today. But it’s not just Moses. If you look closely, you’ll notice that Aaron dies for that sin too. Why? Aaron didn’t hit the rock. But he did hear Moses fume, “Shall we get you water, rebels?!” and stayed silent. In between the first and the second time Moses hit the rock Aaron had an opportunity to protest. Yet he stayed silent.
Aaron is remembered as a disciple of peace. But there can be a darker side to being a peacemaker: mistaking a feeling of peacefulness – of not causing waves – with peace. When it matters most, Aaron stands by. What about us today?
Rabbi Shai Held succinctly charged, “Ripping children from their parents traumatizes them for life. All else is commentary. Go and Act.”
As we find ourselves living in the midst of a dark new chapter in our nation’s history, there is light in this week’s action.
There are moments that transcend politics. There are moments when Americans rise up together in revulsion. This week was such a moment. It wasn’t a left-wing moment and it wasn’t a right-wing moment. It was an American moment. It was a human moment.
It was a moment in which we understood that we can see each other as enemies, shouting, unfriending, and polarizing, or we can remember that fundamentally we need each other. We need each other because horrors are not overcome by partisanship. They are overcome by accessing our shared humanity, our shared sense of decency.
There is so much that shines in that moment. And yet this breach cannot be made right in a moment. It cannot be kept right in a moment.
The American government was established by framers who cautioned that moral governance requires vigilant, vigorous, and continuous engagement. Our government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. What happened this week happened because, across party lines, we as Americans rose up and said, “We do not consent.”
That is baked into the fabric of our country, and it is baked into the fabric of our religion. There’s a famous line in the Torah: Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, Justice shall you pursue. Why repeat tzedek?
Not just for emphasis, but perhaps out of a deep understanding that the pursuit of justice is not a one-time act; it requires sitzfleisch, persistence.
That is what makes Wednesday’s moment perilous – because it’s easy to see that banner alert and head back home. It’s easy right now to just return to our lives. To settle back into our bubbles. To let slip that unified spirit for justice. Sometimes our worst enemy is a bit of success.
But the world contains a fundamental brokenness that is bigger than any one lifetime. And so our tradition teaches, Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. It is not up to you to finish the work AND you are not free to desist from it. The most important work we do is not done in a moment; it is done in moments, one after the other.
So, on Wednesday, we continued on to the rally. And next week I will meet with Jim Cohen, our Chair of Social Justice, to be trained for a shift with our Temple Emanuel Sanctuary Committee to provide care for an immigrant mother who is being sheltered in a local church with her children to prevent them from being separated as volunteer lawyers work to defend her from deportation. I invite you to join us.
And if not that, there are multiple options for each of us to move from a moment to moments of meaningful action: from writing letters to donating funds to CJP’s newly established Fund to Aid Children and End Separation – 100% of which will go to direct aid – to travelling to the border towns yourself or with other organizations.
Whatever the right level for you, engage. Engage with someone who is different from you politically or socially or temperamentally. Engage because you are an American. Engage because you are a Jew. Engage and keep engaging – Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof.
Our beloved Rabbi Chiel, Alav HaShalom, taught that lesson powerfully with his deeds. Back in 1963 when he was a young rabbi in Malverne, New York, school officials refused to integrate elementary school classrooms.
This was a polarizing issue for his community. But that is not what Rabbi Chiel saw. Instead he saw a clear calling to moral courage. He encouraged the synagogue to allow African-American parents to hold a “freedom school” in the shul during their boycott of the public school system.
He later wrote that this experience of standing up for parents and children taught him “that real learning happens only through involvement in the process of making a moral decision and carrying it out.”
Rabbi Chiel’s example calls out to us today. How will you answer?
After all, the most successful rally is not a moment, but a string of actions that go on and on.