Our Migrant First Family: Abraham Passed the Test, but Will We?

October 7, 2019Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, presented this sermon at Westchester Reform Temple on Rosh HaShanah morning 5780 

Take a deep breath.

This won’t be easy.

We need to face something so odious that we will try to avert our eyes. But we must not.

I want us to take a long, hard look at one migrant family. They’ve traveled a long way, hoping to reach a land of safety, a better life, but the child that is at the center of their every hope may not live another day.

Before I describe the migrant families I met on my recent trip to El Paso, TX, and Juarez, Mexico, let’s start with the migrant family described in this morning’s Torah reading.

Our terrifying narrative from the 22nd chapter of Genesis demands that we consider the fate of the first family in Judaism, a family of migrants. A little later in the Torah, Abraham encounters people who are settled in the land. The first Jew describes himself to them this way: “I’m an outsider, a migrant, not one of you.” (Genesis 23:4)

To be a migrant is a scary proposition.

Migrants are at risk, then and now.

In the name of some higher truth, Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac ends up tied down on an altar with a knife poised above his throat. Children are not supposed to endure such cruel treatment –at least not by people who profess deep religious faith. Doesn’t our noble religious faith require us to reject a God who demands that we harm children?

And more: I believe our faith requires us, with every fiber of our beings, to oppose inhumane conditions in which migrant infants, children, and their parents are locked up in overcrowded cage-like facilities, without diapers, forced to sleep on concrete floors, to drink from toilets, and to go without toothbrushes or showers for weeks; this disgraceful policy of deliberate cruelty is a moral affront to the religious values we cherish.

I don’t have any policy recommendations for us this morning, only religious redlines that we cross at our peril. Reasonable people can disagree and should debate immigration policies, but while we wait for that long overdue policy debate, we cannot lose sight of the human dignity of those migrants and asylum seekers in our custody.

A few weeks ago, I spent time with migrant families desperately seeking a safe harbor – like so many of our families did decades ago. This amazing country we call home cannot let in every migrant or asylum seeker, but as we are praying this morning, our government has just decided to let in almost none.

In the spring of 1939, the German ocean liner the St. Louis sailed with 937 passengers aboard from Hamburg to Cuba and then to the U.S. On the eve of the second World War, the gates to America were locked shut, few were allowed in, and the ship was sent back to Europe. Are today’s migrants, journeying to the southern border from Central America all facing persecution and death? Certainly not all of them. But many are.

Here’s what I know for sure: Being a migrant is not a crime. Being a refugee is not a crime. Seeking asylum is not a crime. Seeking a better life is not a crime. And the most religious country in the world must not demonize or treat these migrant families with cruelty – even if we must turn some away.

Last June, after the attorney general of the United States invoked the Bible as support for the policy of separating migrant children from their parents, I helped lead a protest outside the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. With hundreds of interfaith leaders sitting on the street, the bullhorn was passed to me, so I could lead a bible study just below the window of the office of the then-attorney general.

I offered the following teaching:

Mr. Attorney General, the Bible has no shortage of teachings that could be invoked to guide policy makers’ thinking about the crisis at the southern border. Let me offer just a few: In Leviticus, we’re commanded that “the migrant who sojourns with you shall be to you as your citizens;” And even more, we are commanded “to love the migrant as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Thirty-six times the Hebrew Bible repeats this obligation. Yet the directive to love our neighbor is issued only once. Why? Because it is obvious and straightforward to love what is familiar.

But to love the migrant, the stranger, the one who might not look like you, who might speak with an accent, or pray differently than you do, yet who is still loved by God – we must love them as well. In fact, today, we must love them even more.

Today, they are vulnerable to hatred, to xenophobia, to violence, to separation, to deportation, to detention. Today, we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in cruel attacks on migrants.”

I’d like to conclude by offering a challenging reframe of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, by the late Elie Wiesel. He begins with a classic Midrashic reading:

And God put Abraham to the test…
God says, kach et bincha take thy son,
Abraham says, I have two sons.
God specifies, et yechidcha, your only son.
Abraham answers, both are only sons,
Ishmael is the only son I have with Hagar,
Isaac is the only son I have with Sarah.
God gets even more specific, asher ahavta, the son whom you love.
And Abraham answers, are there two separate chambers of one’s innermost self for love?
I love both of them!

In In The Bible: The Akedah Revisited: More Questions, Elie Wiesel dramatically changes the reading by altering the punctuation. There is of course no punctuation in the scroll, but the cantillation guides the way we chant and interpret the text. He changes where we pause with a comma.

God says, kach et bincha, take your son; moving the commas to the end changes the command:
kach et bincha et yechidcha asher ahavta, take the only son you loved, Isaac.

In this reading God blames Abraham for loving only one of his sons, Isaac. And this is why Abraham is put to the test, or maybe the test is really a punishment. Wiesel’s reading is critical for us. Are we being tested? Are we unable to love God’s other children, the ones who are not just like the ones we tuck in at night?

The Akeidah, which we are about to read, is not testing Abraham’s loyalty to God, but rather his loyalty to all of God’s migrant children.

On this first day of the new year 5780, aren’t we being challenged to love the migrant as we love ourselves?

We’re not here to debate our country’s immigration policy. We’re here to see our world through the prism of this ancient, soul stirring narrative. We’re here to remember our deepest commitments, which surely include never dehumanizing children because policy makers have failed to do their job.

Our migrant ancestor Abraham passed his test. Will we pass ours?

Learn more about the Reform Jewish community's immigration reform work by visiting rac.org/immigration

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