Kol Nidre 2019 / 5780
I was taught, and I believe, that the Torah is not the history of the world but is instead the Jewish people’s way of telling our own story. By thinking about the Torah in this way, we are freed from worrying about whether biblical events match the historical record because the value of the text is no longer based on the historical record. Instead, we can understand the Torah as a kind of autobiography of the Jewish people, a record of the events and experiences that our ancestors thought were the most important to their development.
If we approach the Torah in this way, it becomes clear that more than any other experience, it was the Israelites’ escape from Egypt (and their subsequent wandering in the wilderness) that defined our people.
Our tradition’s acknowledgement of the centrality of the Exodus narrative can be seen in the many, many prayers that frame our God as the, “God who led us out of Egypt to be our God.” And, of course, we can see how much power the story has had for generations of Jewish people from the fact that it is the basis of Pesach (Passover), one of our most meaningful and important holidays.
Every spring we gather around tables and retell the story of when the children and grandchildren of Jacob became the Israelite people. It is a story of national creation and it begins and ends with the extreme vulnerability of our biblical ancestors.
Critically, our annual retelling of the Exodus is framed not as an exercise of recalling long-past events or long-gone ancestors. Instead, we begin the Magid section of the Haggadah, the story telling section, by saying some version of, “Arami oveid avi. My father was a wandering Aramean.”
Now, my father is not a wandering Aramean. He was born and raised in Memphis, the place where four generations of his family were born and raised and six generations lived and worked before he entered this world. And while he may have wandered in his time, it was mostly along a route between Tennessee and Minnesota. As far as I know, his wandering has never brought him anywhere near Aram.
But still, every year as I celebrate the holiday that marks our emergence as a nation, I begin telling our story by saying, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
This framing device comes from the commandment in the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy:
“You shall then recite as follows before Adonai your God: ‘My father was a [wandering] Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.”
The Talmud builds on this biblical commandment and explains in Pesachim 116b, “ In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: ‘And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which Adonai did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8). In every generation, each person must say: ‘This which Adonai did for me,’ and not: ‘This which Adonai did for my forefathers.”
And so, from these texts and others came the tradition of beginning the seder’s story by identifying Jacob, the symbolic patriarch of the Israelite people, not as a long-past ancestor but as our father. And as children of Jacob, we become the people who were rescued from Egyptian slavery, brought through the wilderness, and delivered to the Promised Land.
Not our biblical ancestors. Us.
Several weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to I want to dedicate one of my High Holy Day sermons to what Judaism has to teach us about the current immigration crisis. As I researched and prepared, I kept coming back to this phrase, “Arami oveid avi. My father was a wandering Aramean.” This statement is so much more than the opening phrase of the Passover story. It is the heart of what our religion tells us about ourselves, about the stranger, and about the vulnerable.
It is the foundation on which our ethical standards must be built.
I thought it might be helpful for us to delve for a moment into some of the published opinions on this country’s immigration crisis, and I spent quite a bit of time digging through newspapers and scholarly articles that addressed this topic.
Here are a few, representative examples of what I found in my search.
The Chicago Tribune published a conversation with a prominent New Yorker who had been connected with the United States Diplomatic Service for many years. This diplomat spoke at length about his concerns about people claiming to be refugees while actually incredibly wealthy- a belief which he justified by saying, “They make money and thrive where any other class of people would starve…” When The Tribune’s reporter then countered by asking, “If [they] make so much money, and are so well-to-do, how does it happen that all of them who come… are absolutely destitute?” But the diplomat had an answer for that as well, explaining, “Because the wealthy [ones] do not come to America, and those who do come expect to be cared for.” He then concluded, “I believe in America for Americans, and I see no reason why we should be obliged to have the inhabitants of any nationality come here to settle unless we want them [to]. If we desire them for our benefit- not for theirs- let them come; otherwise I see no reason why we should not regulate the matter by law.”
Another article, this time from The Los Angeles Times, echoed The Tribune’s concerns about immigrants who become burdens on the United States in a piece that detailed the schemes that some immigrants engage in as they attempt to enter this country. Here is a small excerpt from their lengthy piece on this topic:
“[Communities] which consider themselves overburdened with [indigent people] (which [to them] means too old, too sick or too young to beg) organize bands of all those who have a chance of passing the inspectors and after providing each group with a good leader and coach in the tricks of the process… The method is this: the...community which desires to rid itself of superfluous children will employ a man or woman to act as father and mother, or may even use genuine immigrants with one or two children of their own, in which case the brood would be precisely and carefully mix[ed]. After the ‘family’ has passed [intro this country] the man and woman travel from city to city...and desert a child in each place, to be picked up by the police … or to be cared for by kind hearted people into whose hands they may fall.”
Of course, there were many articles that included the argument that immigrants coming to this country would not only be a public burden but also a public danger.
A Baltimore newspaper published a letter signed by the “Working Men of Baltimore” which included the following exhortation, “Self-preservation requires that we shall do all in our power to keep back the flood of foreign immigrant criminals...our wives and our children call upon us for protection…”
And finally, I found several articles that framed their authors’ concerns and observations within the context of legislative proposals. For example, a newspaper in Buffalo, New York reported the following:
“It is recognized by [the legislators in Washington] that steps must be taken at once to secure a better grade of immigrants and keep out the [dregs] of the… slums which are now filling the country… The purpose of [one of the proposed bills] is to prevent... criminals and [beggars] from being sent here as immigrants. Statistics show that much too large a proportion of the immigrants now coming here are incapable of self-support. [And moreover, foreign] countries not only encourage immigration of criminals and [their poorest citizens], but use public money to pay their expenses here. This fact seems to be a sufficient reason why so large a percentage of immigrants so soon find themselves in our prisons…”
The article concludes by arguing that the “...[proposed policy] change strikes at no nationality but simply at the class of incapables of all nations who can only be a burden to us, and whose moral and social influence can do us much harm.”
Unfortunately, these excerpts truly seem to represent the frequently-stated concerns of many public officials, journalists, and regular Americans who look at the immigrants at our borders and see only threats to their financial security and physical safety.
You know what... I just realized that I forgot to include some important context for these articles. I wouldn’t normally go back and correct myself during a sermon, but this is really critical information. So, I’ll just run through them quickly now.
Ok, let’s start with that first article, the one from The Chicago Tribune. You remember, it’s the one where the diplomat explained that immigrants are actually thieves and should only be allowed to enter the United States if citizens decide to permit new people to experience this country. He was the one who argued both that the people attempting to enter the United States were secretly very wealthy AND that the wealthiest people from their home countries did not come to the United States.
The name of the diplomat is Eugene Schuyler. You’re probably not familiar with him but many of you might know his third cousins, twice removed. Their names are Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy... the Schuyler sisters, three women famously looking for a mind at work. The Tribune published that article in 1882, and it was titled, “Russian-Jew Immigrants: Eugene Schuyler Considers Them an Undesirable Element in the Population of This Country.”
The second article was from The Los Angeles Times; it’s the one that accused countries of rounding up and sending huge bands of the least desirable and self-sufficient people to cheat their way into the United States. It’s also the one that accused immigrants of bringing children that they have no claim over into the country and then abandoning them in various cities.
The title of that article is, “How to Keep Out Undesirable Immigrants: Surprising Facts, the Result of an Exhaustive Study of the Conditions Under Which Foreigners are Brought to This Country.” The excerpt that I shared with you comes from a section called, “Hebrew Paupers Schooled For Admission.”
The article was published on July 3rd 1904 which was, incidentally, just 35 days after one of my Hebrew ancestor, Chaim Baer Magidovitz, arrived in America hoping desperately that this new land would allow him to protect his sons from the Russian tsar's military draft.
The third article I mentioned was signed by the “Working Men of Baltimore.” It’s the one that used coded language to imply that “foreign men” posed a danger to the virtue of women and children. That article appeared in the Baltimore Daily Commercial on September 23rd 1845. That edition of the Baltimore Daily dedicated considerable space to several reports and letters from the organized group calling themselves “Native Americans.” In this context, these “Native Americans” are the descendants of European immigrants rather than this continent’s indigenous peoples.
While the “Working Men of Baltimore” did not explicitly mention Jewish immigrants in their letter, 1845 was right in the middle of a huge immigration wave from Western Germany and other Western European countries. So we can reasonably understand that these Baltimore men were concerned that Jewish immigrants were taking their jobs and posing threats to their loved ones.
And finally, the last article that I shared with you was published in The Buffalo Enquirer in 1894 and referenced the following bill that had been recently introduced in the House of Representatives: “H.R. 5107: [A] Bill for the necessary and better protection of American labor and enforcement of the law of domicile and the restriction of immigration.” The article was titled, “High Praise for Dan Lockwood’s Measure Intended to Stop Pauper Invasion,” and it was actually a comparison of two different immigration reform bills that were being considered by Congress at the time. I can only be grateful that my ancestor arrived from Russia with her four children and two pieces of luggage just over a month before this article was published. Thank goodness that those paupers, that my paupers, had not been barred by laws like Lockwood’s.
All of these articles were published more than one hundred years ago, and yet all of them could have been written yesterday. The stereotypes. The careful dedication to forgetting one’s own history. The real sense of insecurity and the deep fear of instability. We can see all of these in both newspapers from historical archives AND in news outlets that we can access on our phones.
It is devastating to know that the same invective being thrown at immigrants and refugees today was once used to belittle and bar our ancestors and other Jewish families from accessing this country and from pursuing better, safer lives.
The Torah teaches us that we are meant to protect the stranger among us not only because it is the right thing to do but also because we know the heart of the stranger. The commandment to avoid ill treatment of the stranger does not appear once, or twice, or three times in our most sacred text. It appears thirty-six times in the Torah. Thirty-six times we are commanded to behave based on our divinely-mandated EMPATHY.
And that brings us back to where we started, “Arami oveid avi.” When I used this phrase at the beginning of my sermon tonight, I translated it as, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
Fascinatingly, the translation of these three words, “Arami oveid avi,” despite their frequent appearance in our textual tradition, has inspired heated debate- so much so that there is no one, universally-accepted translation.
Rashi argued that the Hebrew should be understood as, “An Aramean killed my father,” a reference to Laban’s desperate pursuit of his son-in-law, Jacob. Rashi explained that Laban intended not only to catch his son-in-law but also to kill him and that his intent was counted against him... hence, “An Aramean killed my father.”
Ibn Ezra wrote that Rashi had fundamentally misunderstood the phrase and that the words should actually be translated as, “My father was a fugitive or lost Aramean.” Ibn Ezra explained that the adjective which he alternated between translating as “fugitive” or “lost” actually meant something like hapless or unfortunate and implied that Jacob was very vulnerable when he was in Aram because he was a stranger in a strange land.
I believe that 21st century Jewish communities should embrace both interpretations because ultimately the most important word in the phrase, “Arami oveid avi,” is not “Arami” or “oveid.” The most important word is “avi,” “my father.”
The Talmud tells us that, “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
As a Jewish community we are commanded to remember that our people have lived lives of vulnerability. We have been unfortunates, fugitives, wanderers.
I know exactly how many generations back my family’s immigration experience happened. I can associate far off dates with the stories of pain and trauma that I know must have accompanied my ancestors as they left behind whatever family, challenges, and dangers existed in the lands of their birth and struggled to enter this country.
As a family historian, I know that my story is separated from theirs by the distance of more than a century.
But, as a Jew, I am commanded to graft their stories onto my own. I am not allowed to have any distance between their pain and mine.
It is imperative that we disrupt our own American dreams long enough to remember that our fathers were wandering Arameans, fugitives, people lost between countries.
We are commanded to look at the stranger and see our own hearts reflected in theirs.
As a Jewish community we are required to reject any emotional safety that comes from distancing ourselves from our people’s past.
We were wanderers. We were fugitives. We were vulnerable.
But that also means that we were redeemed. We were rescued. We know what it means to look up from our struggles and see someone fighting to free us.
On Rosh Hashanah, before we sang Mi Chamochah, our song of redemption, we read,
“You have stayed long enough in this place, God said.
Time to go forward.
Turn your face to the future.
Believe that you can cross this sea and survive.
Inside you is a Moses; within you, Miriam dances, unafraid.
Lift up your voice and sing a new song.”
As I look into our congregation tonight, I see reflections of Moses and Miriam, Shifrah and Puah, Aaron and Batyah. I see both wanders and people who have the power to be redeemers.
We have to believe that we can cross this sea and survive. We have to lift up our voices and sing songs of freedom. This is a defining moment in our stories and the stories of our brothers and sisters whose hearts look so much like our own.
I pray that we will act in ways that future generations can remember with pride.