The man feared for his life. So, he left the only home he had ever known and headed toward a land that would, hopefully, provide him a measure of protection and security.
The man’s name was not Ahmed or Kareem. It was Ya’akov, of course. The condensed story of his flight is told to us in the very first verse of this week’s Torah portion: “Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran (Gen. 28:10).”
News reports, social media postings and political discussions have all addressed the issue of people on the move from a dangerous homeland in search of a safe harbor. We call them refugees. And while that term is correct and accurate, it also makes it easier for us to forget they are human beings. They are different than we are and they are from foreign places, but they are still human beings.
The Torah is very clear about how we are supposed to treat such people: “For the Lord your God is God supreme, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, who… upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt (Deut. 10:17-19).”
In other words, we are acting in the most God-like way possible when we take in our fellow human beings who are escaping a dangerous homeland with no place else to go.
Now the Torah is also clear that we are not supposed to endanger ourselves: “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously (Deuteronomy 4:9).” We believe that life is a sacred gift from God and we owe it God to protect and preserve that life.
So, we have an obligation to our fellow human beings AND we have an obligation to ourselves. Most of the time, these two obligations are compatible with one another. However, in extraordinary circumstances, they come into conflict with one another.
Certainly, we are experiencing one of those instances where the two principles are pushing us in different directions. On the one hand, moral people want to help others who have had to flee from their homes due to war, terrorism and violence. On the other hand, nobody wants to put their own families or themselves in harm’s way. It’s a tough spot.
We Jews have been kicked out of just about every country we’ve ever lived in – including our own! Even in this country, Ulysses S. Grant tried to kick all the Jews out of Tennessee during the Civil War. It seems to me that, of all the people in the world, WE should be sympathetic to the plight of the Syrian refugees. American Jews in particular should be sympathetic as most of us are only here because our ancestors fled violence in some other country.
Now, this does not mean that we should abandon the screening process and security protocols while throwing our gates wide open. We can have a serious conversation about improving our ability to weed out potential terrorists and keeping our country safe.
However, we ought to remember the words of Emma Lazarus, whose ancestors came to this country from Portugal, most likely to escape religious persecution. Perhaps, you’ve seen them when you visited the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”