Sunday, April 20, 2008

Opening Our Tent: Welcoming the Stranger

Opening Our Tent: Welcoming the Stranger
Rosh Hashanah Morning 2007-5768
Rabbi David Kaufman

Today, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, but I would like to talk about another aspect of the story of Abraham’s life without which there would have been no binding of Isaac. There would have been no Isaac. It is a story found only three chapters earlier in the book of Genesis and is more directly connected to the holiday of Sukkot.

Once, on a hot day, Abraham sat under the shadow of the oak, at the entrance of his tent, and saw Three Strangers standing before him. Abraham loved to receive strangers. He immediately got up and ran to meet them, bowed to the earth, and invited them to rest at his home under the tree and to strengthen themselves with food.

The strangers came to his abode. According to the custom of that time, Abraham washed their feet, gave them bread which had just been prepared by his wife Sarah, set forth oil, milk, and the best fatted calf, and called them to eat.

And they said to him, "Where is Sarah, thy wife?"
He answered, "Behold, in the tent."

One of Them said, "I will assuredly return to thee in a year; and, behold, Sarah thy wife shall have a son."

Sarah, who was standing out of sight in the entrance to the tent, heard these words. She laughed to herself and thought, "How can this be possible, when I am already old?"

But the Stranger said, "Why should Sarah laugh?...Is anything too hard for Adonai? At the time appointed I will return to you,... and Sarah shall bear a son."

And one year later, Isaac was born. Tradition tells us that it was Abraham’s actions in welcoming the strangers into his home that brought about the blessing of Isaac’s birth. Thus, had Abraham not welcomed the three visitors, the Akeidah story, nor the blessings that followed from it including the eventual birth of Jacob, ancestor of all of the Children of Israel: none of that would have happened. The very existence of our people is rooted in welcoming the stranger into our midst.

The story of the Ushpizin, the holy visitors, is one of the traditional themes of the holiday of Sukkot. It is customary to invite guests to dine in your Sukkah. Some of you may even have seen the Israeli film, Ushpizin, about an Ultra-Orthodox couple that receives some very un-Orthodox visitors into their Sukkah, who test their faith. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it.

I have talked extensively about the need to welcome all members of interfaith families into our community. Recently, I have talked about the Reform Jewish views as well as my own, toward Gays and Lesbians and same sex unions. The ways in which we as Jews welcome these groups differs from movement to movement and from congregation to congregation. You may know that I have also worked with the Sudanese community in Des Moines over the past four years attempting to bring attention to the ongoing crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, where hundreds of thousands have died in recent years. Our community, Jews and non-Jews, has made an effort to reach out to the Sudanese here in Des Moines in order to help them acclimate to Iowa and attempted to lobby our state and federal governments hoping to bring more refugees to Iowa.

There are hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees that have fled the fighting in Sudan. Many have gone to Egypt and no small number are looking toward the Promised Land as their destination.

In a recent article, published in Israeli newspapers, Aliza Olmert, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s wife, wrote about the journey of the multitude of Sudanese Muslim refugees trying to cross the Egyptian border into Israel.

She went to interview the people and even visited the Darfur region of Sudan to learn about their suffering firsthand, to understand the difficulties that Israel is facing in coping with their arrival, and to perhaps help it to face those difficulties better.

Here is the situation she describes:

There are those who warn of some 3 million illegal residents in Egypt getting ready to come to Israel. A payment of $1,500 for a man and $750 for the woman will get you across the border, from Cairo to Philadelphi, the border between Egypt and Israel.

You’re certainly not the first who hopes to swap a $50 a month salary in Cairo for a $1,000 one in Eilat.

When you get to the Egyptian border they will fire a few warning shots in the distance. Don’t worry about it; it’s just a little commotion as you cross the wire fence. Then dash across the few meters between the Third World and a country party to the refugee treaty. A few more steps and you’ve crossed into ‘The Land of Peace’ – as the Eritrean refugee caught last night by IDF forces called it.

Now all you have left to do is wait. The IDF vehicle has already been alerted to the scene ever since the border cameras picked up signs of suspicious movement. The Israeli soldier who will determine that you are not smuggling arms will then give you a drink of water and hold your baby while you clamber onto your ride to the Gozal encampment-- a few dusty prefabricated structures.

A payment of $750 for a woman to cross the border (Photo: AFP)

The soldiers entrusted with guarding this stretch of the border aren’t prepared for hosting duties. Certainly not for people so weary and tired they can’t seem to even look at you. The country lacks the billions needed to fence the Philadelphi route. The porous borders of a developed country are an impossible temptation and a solider tending to refugees is distracted from his original mission.

Those caught tonight stretch out on the floor of an office cleared of its furniture, makeshift partitions divide between a group of laborers from Eritrea to a family – father, mother and two children – who escaped the genocide in Darfur.

The sharp odor of sweat permeates the room. It’s hot, stuffy and frightening. The family covers itself in military blankets. The father’s feet stick out, his soles scarred. His beautiful wife sits beside him and holds the girl, the boy wheezes in his sleep. The father tells me in English of the Janjaweed who burned their village. Of the family members who perished there.
The Israeli soldier will determine your fate (Photo: Meir Azoulai)

The fate of the people that Aliza Olmert met will be decided by a UN expert. He is the one charged with verifying their story, with determining whether they are deserving of refugee status.

Yet Israel only knows how to handle refugees that enter the country through normal channels, whose settlement is paid for by international organizations in the Jewish community, and who may be assimilated into Israeli culture most easily through Jewish institutions and schools. It has no national organization, no national institutions to handle refugees simply crossing the border in order to find safety.

Just the thought of Muslims fleeing to Israel as a safe haven is somewhat amusing. Here are black African Muslims fleeing persecution by other Muslims by going to the only Jewish nation in the world, one created as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution and genocide, and whose very existence continues to be threatened. Israel is The Land of Peace, not only for Jews, but for Muslims.

The Israeli army, for all of its expertise in military concerns, has no idea how to deal with refugees. It has in the past literally unloaded a jeep with freed refugees in the Beersheba marketplace because it believed that the other authorities should be handling the refugees and not the military. This has led to heated arguments between local municipalities and governmental agencies about who should be dealing with the refugees and as in the case of some refugees from Sudan, resulted in Israeli non-governmental organizations taking over their care.
A modern exodus. Mother and child in the Rose Garden, Jerusalem (Photo: amir Cohen)

Israel can most certainly not take it hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees. It cannot even take in tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees. But, as Aliza Olmert pointed out, “sending a Sudanese back to Sudan after he has visited Israel, an enemy nation, is tantamount to a death sentence.” Egypt, meanwhile, has even shot Sudanese attempting to cross the border into Israel from Egypt in order to discourage others from entering Egypt to do so.

'We must be compassionate' (Photo: AP)

This New Year, Israel is dealing with continuing Qassam missile fire from Gaza into Sderot, the Iranian nuclear threat, belligerent rhetoric being exchanged between Israel and Syria, Hamas continuing to challenge for control of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the fortification of the north by Hizballah--and even under all of this threat, Israel was the safehaven sought out by Muslims fleeing genocide in the Muslim world.

Perhaps, the story of Abraham and the visitors is indeed appropriate to this story. Through no small effort, the nation of Israel came into being and like the life of Isaac, it all too often seems to hang on a thread. But in welcoming the strangers, we are told that Abraham and Sarah were blessed with Isaac and because of that the people and nation of Israel lives. How can we not embrace and welcome those fleeing from genocide?

Israel is indeed doing exactly that. The refugees are coming. Muslims fleeing to the Jewish state for safety.

Could it be that this should not be so strange to us? Could it be that long ago our ancestors understood what we today struggle to understand?

Perhaps we have had the answer for more than 2,500 years. In the words of Isaiah, “As for the strangers… let them rejoice in My House of Prayer… For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:6-7).

Then again, that answer is found in the very document creating the nation of Israel. The Declaration Of TheEstablishment Of The State Of Israel includes the following paragraph:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.

The prophetic voice drives us to Tikkun Olam, to the repair of the world and to Gimilut Hasadim, to acts of kindness that better our world.

History has taught us that the nations of the world will all too quickly turn a blind eye to the suffering of peoples threatened with genocide. Our people died by the millions because they were turned away.

In the words of Rabbi Hillel, the practice of Judaism is based upon a single rule: Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you, all the rest is commentary, go and learn it. We would not have them turn us away in our flight. We cannot turn them away in theirs.

When a refugee from Darfur crosses the border with his wife and children and the Israeli soldier asks, “Who will take care of these people in their time of need?” Do you know what the answer is?

You and me. All of us. The descendants of Isaac, who Tradition tells us would not have been born if not for Abraham’s generosity toward Three Strangers. Israel must meet this challenge and we must aid it to do so. Israel understands this and is trying its best, we must do likewise to help through our generosity and our political voice on its behalf.

May the new year see an end to the violence in Darfur and may it see the dawn of Shalom for Israel and the Middle East. Let it be for us a year filled with Gimilut Hasadim, acts of kindness, and may we, like Abraham, be blessed because we welcome and bless others.

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.

The following is additional information concerning NGOs that are involved:

Shalom All,

Here is a good discussion of the moral/ethical issues faced by Israel in dealing with the Sudanese refugees. The army has as of now said that any refugees fleeing from Darfur specifically will be admitted, but those coming for economic reasons primarily will not. This is likely to be a temporary solution since Israel cannot possibly admit tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from Darfur either:

This article deals with the educational solutions currently:

The most important NGO helping the Sudanese however is Magen David Adom. MDA helps migrants of all kinds from the moment they cross the border. Many are in very poor health and MDA takes care of their medical needs. MDA right now has organized teams to be sent at a moment's notice to meet migrants to which they are alerted by the IDF. MDA has also provided supplies for schools, jobs, housing, etc...

Please see the Magen David Adom website for more information and to make donations .

Other organizations that are helping Sudanese in Israel include Rabbis for Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights. Also Hotline, which is an organization helping migrant workers in Israel: .

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