Every day we are confronted with the faces of people from all corners of our world who have left everything they know behind and fled in search of safety. And this story rings a bell in our historic memory. Deep in our collective conscience – even if it was thousands of years ago, we remember leaving a dangerous place where our lives were endangered.
The pictures of refugees fleeing chaos and war and finding no place to go, some dying, others standing at fences unable to cross a border or in refugee camps amidst squalor are so disturbing. Every day when we open the newspaper we are confronted with the faces of people from all corners of our world who have endured persistent persecution and left everything they know behind and fled in search of safety. And this story rings a bell in our historic memory. Deep in our collective conscience – even if it was thousands of years ago, we remember leaving a dangerous place where our lives were endangered.
Millions left. According to the Torah there were over two million refugees leaving Egypt. So important was this experience to us that we remember it twice during the year. On Passover, we remember the experience of leaving. On Sukkot, the holiday we are currently observing, we remember the 40 years we spent in the wilderness. The booths we construct bring us back to that experience of insecurity. Leaving the comfort of our homes we are meant to relive what it meant to be without permanent shelter. Refuges without homes exposed to the harsh elements. Heat, sand, uncertainty regarding food and water, discomfort sear into our souls. We remember that freedom does not come easy.
And this historic memory is meant to stimulate empathy for others who have no home. And it is around this experience that we form our ethic. On Yom Kippur, the hunger from fasting reminds us to have empathy for those without food. Time after time in the Torah, we reference our experience so that we have empathy for those we are vulnerable. One of the most revolutionary of commandments, To Love the Stranger, is rooted in having been a stranger.
This ethic is summoning us now. We are to open our hearts and doors to the refugees of our day. The Syrian refugees cannot just be dismissed; not when people are suffering and dying. Something has to be done.
What do we do when we encounter these stories? We may read a bit; we may not. But then we turn the page. We are overwhelmed. We are not sure how we can make a difference, and it is difficult to comprehend the depth of their vulnerability.
So we let the ethic of our holidays motivate us. The vulnerability symbolized in the Sukkah sinks in “You shall live in booths (sukkot) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”
The sukkah is thus a physical reminder, not only of our journey in the desert, but also of our abiding vulnerability. It creates connection with others in that situation. We can’t just turn the page. Today’s refugees are among the world’s most unprotected people. We have to help.
Start with stories of people doing acts of kindness that make a difference. I read a sermon by Rabbi Dan Dorsch, who shared that he was on a honeymoon cruise from Greece to Turkey this summer. It was about three in the morning and the captain got on the communication system and informed everyone that she had spotted something suspicious in the water. No one should be alarmed but she was turning the ship around. As the dawn broke, looking out his window expecting to see Turkey, he saw lifeboats, being lowered into the ocean. And then he saw a raft floating in the water next to the ship, dwarfed by the cruise ship. And on that raft 45 Syrian refugees – men, women and children fleeing for their lives. They had been stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea for several days – they had run out of food, and were in desperate need of help and medical attention. The captain, realizing what happened, knew that she needed to save them. That is Sukkot!
We can take pride in the fact that Israel has opened its border in the north and built field hospitals, which have taken in around 2000 Syrians. The Israel Defense Forces pick up wounded from the conflict at U.N. transfer points on the border and provide medical care. Most of those are suffering massive injuries. It is estimated that 70% of Syria’s medical community has been killed or fled. There is no one to take care of these people or others who need ongoing medical treatment. Israel takes them in.
In addition to Syrian refugees, there are 47,000 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees fleeing Africa in Israel. On Rosh Hashana I shared with you the response of the Hartman Institute which decided to adopt a nursery school caring for the refugee children in South Tel Aviv that was looking to start an after school program. Picture the best Torah scholars in the world driving from Jerusalem to South Tel Aviv to change diapers, to create a connection – to do something,
I would like us to do something as well. Usually I have a concrete suggestion – but right now ideas are still forming and I am looking for the right partnerships. Frankly, all of this is new. The world has not faced an issue like this in my lifetime. There is no playbook. But the Israelis giving Syrians medical care, and the Hartman Institute inspire me. The Pope inspires me. He is asking churches to sponsor families that are arriving in the area. Can we do something like that here?
There are numerous Jewish organizations that are making a difference. Send in a donation to HIAS – The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. For more than 130 years, HIAS has been helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. They are deeply involved in advocacy and settling refugees. There is also the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. This brings together several Jewish organizations that seek to help out in disaster situations. This coordinates response for the basics – food, clothing and shelter in the places of greatest need. This is us at our best.
Let me conclude with one final interpretation of Sukkot symbols. The 4 species that we hold together – the lulav, etrog, myrtle and willow and seen as representing different parts of the body. The lulav is like the spine of a human being, the myrtle is like the eye, the willow is like the lips, and the etrog is like the heart. We worship God with every part of our bodies. It is time to be God’s agents. To stand tall as we help others, the lulav. To see the pain in the world around us, the myrtle. To open our mouths and cry out in anguish, the willow. And to open our hearts to all in need, the etrog.
May we use all of our limbs to be agents of goodness in this world responding to the pain that screams out for response. It is then that our Sukkot will truly spread God’s peace over the entire world.