You shall love the stranger – he is like you!
This is a Yom Kippur sermon, written and delivered by Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, rabbi at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. 23 September 2015/10 Tishri 5776.
A couple of days ago, Rabbi Andrew handed me a little book entitled “You and the Refugee.” It is a Penguin Special by Norman Angell and was first published in 1939. It begins with the following statement:
“Our refugee policy is based on the assumption that admission of more than a tiny number would have bad economic results…”
Sound familiar? In 2002, Anne Karpf, columnist, writer and sociologist wrote an article entitled “We’ve been here before”. The article deals with the press coverage over asylum seekers arriving in Britain. She reminds the reader that the perception that Britain has always had an open arms policy to refugees, such as those escaping the Nazis is not necessarily so.
Karpf cites Tony Kushner, professor of history at the University of Southampton, saying, “The Daily Mail has been an anti-alien newspaper since the 1900s. There’s great continuity.”
Her article goes on to detail the British immigration policy which was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews. A beacon of hope at the time was the admission of 7,700 Jewish children on the so-called Kindertransports. This heroic act of brave and committed citizens of this country who opened their homes to welcome children fleeing Hitler, was Michael Bond’s inspiration for Paddington bear as he remembered seeing the Jewish evacuee children in the train stations of London during the Kindertransport of the late 1930s. He recalled: “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on, and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”
The Kindertransport was indeed a beacon of hope and can be our inspiration today, but as our colleague Rabbi Charley Baginsky points out: “while many of us will have seen the touching photographs and newsreel footage of Jewish children arriving on Kindertransports…there are no photos of the Jewish parents left behind.”
Are we really dammed to repeat history forever?
In recent weeks, I do believe that we have witnessed a shift in the public debate. The picture of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi served as a wake-up call – to British society and the Jewish community in particular.
As Jews, we cannot turn our back on refugees fleeing oppression. Knowing what it means to be a stranger, to be oppressed is part of the core of our Jewish identity.
The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights this in his commentary on Exodus: “Whichever way we look at it, there is something striking about this almost endlessly iterated concern for the stranger – together with the historical reminder that “you yourselves were slaves in Egypt”. It is as if in this series of laws we are nearing the core of the mystery of Jewish existence itself.”
The story of Abraham, the first Jew, begins with him having to leave his home, his birthplace. And from Abraham onwards, our patriarchs and matriarchs are repeatedly forced to seek refuge.
Our tradition teaches us to “feel the risk to which Abraham and Isaac are exposed when they are forced to leave home and take refuge in Egypt or the Land of the Philistines. In each of the three episodes, (Genesis chapters 12, 20, 26) they are convinced that their lives are at stake; that they may be murdered so that their wives can be taken into the royal harem. Jacob’s daughter is raped and abducted. And there are repeated implications in the course of the Joseph story that in Egypt the Israelites are regarded as pariahs.” In Rabbi Sacks’ words: “Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions…”
Yet, our Jewish tradition teaches, as we read in Leviticus 19: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not oppress them. The strangers who reside with you shall be treated as your own citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
What lessons are we to learn from our biblical tradition and our own historical experience of having to flee the places we called home? How are we to respond to the current refugee crisis?
Another colleague of ours, Rabbi Neil Janes, wrote movingly about trying to explain to his young children what is currently happening and why it has affected him so much, he says: “But then I had a thought which really scared me. I’m still dad who makes them laugh. I take them swimming. I cheerfully lead services at synagogue and they can stand next to me as I recite the closing blessing of peace. But could I face my daughters in ten years time when they ask me what I did when faced with the biggest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. It is simply impossible to think that I’ve created a career giving sermons on a weekly basis telling people how they might think and behave and then when I confront the basic human need of a home, freedom, safety, on an unimaginable scale I might have no words and no actions.”
Indeed, the current situation feels on many levels too vast and too complicated to overcome, to find words or actions. But in my sermon on Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the importance of looking towards the New Year with optimism and maybe we can do likewise in this case.
Rather than focusing on the situation as a crisis, let us try to look at it as an opportunity. Rather than fearing that terrorists might be hiding amongst the refugees, let us imagine the potential of their future contributions to our society. Who knows? They may be our next generation of Nobel Prize winners, authors, consultants, firemen, even future sons- and daughters-in-law. They may go back to their countries to be political, social and cultural leaders helping to rebuild Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather than emphasising the challenges that welcoming refugees might bring, let us focus on the opportunities it provides us to fulfil Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 58:6-7) “to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain; to share our bread with the hungry and to provide housing for the poor, to clothe them and never to hide ourselves” from that responsibility.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Various research studies have indeed shown that a key way to finding happiness is helping others.
In one of the studies, published in 2010 in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers in Great Britain had participants take a survey measuring life satisfaction, then they assigned all 86 participants to one of three groups. One group was instructed to perform a daily act of kindness for the next 10 days. Another group was told to do something new each day. A third group received no instructions.
After the 10 days were up, the researchers asked the participants to complete the life satisfaction survey again.
The groups that practiced kindness and engaged in novel acts both experienced a significant—and roughly equal—boost in happiness; the third group didn’t get any happier. The findings suggest that good deeds do in fact make people feel good—even when performed over as little as 10 days—and there may be particular benefits to varying our acts of kindness, as novelty seems linked to happiness as well.
It’s something that you can always try out for yourself.
While we personally might not be able to come up with the grand solutions to all the problems that go hand in hand with millions of people on the move to find a safer place to call home, we can all do our bit.
We can, just like many of you have done already, donate money and goods to support refugees. If you want to get a real buzz of happiness, just pop into the NPLS office to look at the mountains of donations that have already been received.
If you have a bit of spare time to give, you might want to volunteer this Saturday after services in Finchley to sort through donations for Calais or you may want to volunteer at one of the asylum seeker drop-in centres operated by central London Synagogues.
You may also want to join in with acts of solidarity, like the banner that we have displayed at the synagogue stating “Refugees are welcome.” And you might want to invite your friends and neighbours to join in – as Rabbi Aaron and I did when we invited fellow clergy in Northwood to display a similar banner. It still brings a smile to my face every time I turn into our street to see those banners on the synagogue and the church.
Or you can write to your MP or other politicians to let them know that you care about this issue. That you don’t want to focus on the crisis but on helping provide a solution.
On Monday 21st September, a letter signed by over 100 rabbis was delivered to David Cameron. In this letter, we called on Cameron to accelerate and expand proposals for the UK to take in refugees and urged the government to re-examine asylum policies, in particular to allow refugees to work. And we pledged our support and the support of the Jewish community to help in the effort of finding homes for shelter, to raise funds for food, clothing and education and to support the government’s difficult decision in this time where moral courage is demanded. So that one day our children will be able to tell the story of a nation that listened to the cry of the stranger in need.
If that was all a bit too much information in one go you will find postcards with a website listing (www.supportrefugees.org.uk), which provides a one-stop-shop for those seeking to respond to the crisis. Or you can check what your rabbis are getting up to – Rabbi Aaron, for example, will be going to the local church in Watford tonight after services to speak on this issue. He is a bit mad really, I will just go home and have some food!
The French poet Emmanuel Eydoux tried to sum up in a short poem what it means to be a Jew. He wrote:
To open eyes when others close them
To hear when others do not wish to listen
To look when others turn away
To seek to understand when others give up
To rouse oneself when others accept
To continue the struggle even when one is not the strongest
To cry out when others keep silent
To be a Jew
It is that,
It is first of all that
To live when others are dead
And to remember when others have forgotten.
As we see the pictures of people fleeing their homes, let us make sure that we pay heed to the words that we read from the Torah: Let us not stand by idle when our neighbour’s blood is shed. And let us remember both readings of the verse “Veahavta hager kamocha” – you shall love the stranger as yourself and “Veahavta hager, kamocha” you shall love the stranger – he is like you.
To be a Jew has always also meant to be a stranger. Let us remember this lesson from our past and our tradition and make sure to open our eyes, hear, look and cry out. And let us embrace the opportunity to help others that they and we shall find happiness in the New Year.
Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.