One Minute Torah – Ki Tavo 2019

When Immigration Enforcement officers pick-up people for deportation, they move them quickly to a distant facility.

This week’s One Minute Torah is From the Archives

When Immigration Enforcement officers pick-up people for deportation, they move them quickly to a distant facility. For a long time, deportees from Chicago were moved to Gary, Indiana, about a two- hour drive from JRC, the synagogue where my friend and colleague, Kate Kinser, works most days of the week. Kate knows, because she made the drive often.

Kate is one of a group of clergy who see it as their obligation to pray publicly for the welfare of every deportee on the day of their deportation. Often the families are there, and the clergy hold them as they cry. The deportees themselves do not get to talk to the clergy, can barely see them through the fence. But they can hear the sounds of the prayers, and Kate believes this matters. She wants them to hear a compassionate voice from America. She wants them to know they are not forgotten.

Deportations from Gary happen early in the morning. For a time they were at 6am, then it was shifted to 4am with little warning. For Kate, and for the families of most of the deportees, that meant leaving the house at 2am.

It happened one September that a deportation was cancelled, then suddenly rescheduled for 4am on Yom Kippur morning. None of the Christian clergy were able to shift their schedules to be there. Kate had no public High Holiday obligations that year, and of course she was not working that day. “Well,” she thought, “The mitzvah of Yom Kippur is to ‘afflict’ your body. Waking up at 2am to drive two hours seems to qualify.” So she went.

Arriving at the deportation center, in the dark, on an empty stomach, was a surreal experience. The place is made of concrete slabs, surrounded with barb wire. She stood alone in the dark, the prisoners shuffling past her on the other side of a wall as she called out prayers for their welfare.

Our parshah this week, Ki Tavo, is one of the darkest in the Torah. It warns of what will happen if we fail to “serve God with joy and with goodness of heart” (Deut. 28:47). It describes a world turned upside down. “In the morning you will long for night, and at night you will long for day, out of the terror of your heart,” (Deut. 28:67). “You will be scattered to the ends of the earth”, and living amongst strangers “you will find no rest,” (Deut. 28:64-65).

The ancient rabbis saw clear references to the Roman devastation of Jerusalem, and modern readers often see the expulsions, pogroms and ultimate destruction of European Jewry. Susannah Heschel wrote a powerful piece yesterday for the Forward, “My Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Was a Dreamer, Too.” Before Abraham Joshua Heschel became one of the most influential and inspiring rabbis of our times, he was a deportee. His daughter writes: “I grew up hearing with horror the word “deportation”… What we needed more than anything was to know with certainty that this would never happen again.”

Our parshah mocks that basic need for certainty. How do you live with the constant fear of arrest and deportation? It is unimaginable to me. I have come to believe that I am secure in this country. My people are no longer foreigners here. But our parshah warns that no people can dominate another forever. Foreigners will become owners, and masters will sink low (Deut. 28:43).

That Yom Kippur day, Kate got back to Chicago in time for the “Avodah” service, the part when we recall the High Priest’s ritual in that ancient Temple that was later destroyed by the Romans. The shofar sounded several hours later, and her affliction ended. But for the people she had seen that morning, by then arrived back in a country they had previously fled, the affliction was just beginning.