My great-grandfather, Morris Farkas arrived in America on December 9, 1908 on the USS Finland. I have a copy of the ship’s manifest in my office. He came as a child on his own, sent by his parents to escape the anti-semitic mobs that regularly raided the Eastern Hungarian town where my family lived. Passing under the lamp of Lady Liberty, Morris steamed into New York Harbor. Once he disembarked he was taken in by the Hebrew Benevolent Society and brought to Ellis Island. He spoke no English. He had no parents. His passenger ID was 101865160207. His ethnicity is listed as “Hebrew.” Other than that he had no papers. It wasn’t illegal then to be undocumented.
Despite our common memory of New York City absorbing wave after wave of the world’s most reviled people, the truth is more complicated. When my great-grandfather walked the down the gangway to a new life, he found a city seething at his presence. The same year the New York Police Commissioner, Theodore Bingham, announced that half the crimes in New York were committed by Jewish immigrants. “Jews are firebugs, burglars, pick pockets and robbers when they have the courage.” He was speaking of the generation of my my great-grandfather and great-grandmother and of their children.
In May of 1939, nearly a thousand Jewish passengers on St. Louis embarked from Hamburg, Germany to the safe haven of Havana. They were turned back by Cuba. Sailing north, the passengers could see the lights of Miami from the deck at night. They cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. They received no response. Finally a State Department telegram was received by a passenger stating that all passengers must ““await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” The St. Louis sailed back to Europe with a quarter of its passengers eventually murdered in the Holocaust.
We find the same the language in this week’s Torah Portion, Balak. “Moab dreaded the Israelites and said to the Elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde willlick clean al lthe about us as an ox licks up the grass in the field.” (Numbers 22:3) The King of Moab, as the Kings Amora and and Edom before him, looked upon the band of political refugees running from slavery, from oppression and from powerlessness and saw only danger. They sought to curse those who had wandered the wasteland. Blinded by his own xenophobia, he could not see the blessings of the new immigrant.
When I listen to pundits and politicians lambasting these wanderers to our borders as rapists and criminals who are here donkey to destroy our society – when they are characterized as bugs who seek to “infest” our community – I cannot be deaf to the parallels and analogies to my own life and the life of my people.
Let us ask, if we obey the laws blindly, what is to become of the children whose parents are gone? What is to become of families seeking asylum only to be turned away and murdered back in their home countries? What shall become of the Dreamers?
The answer to these questions of conscience is not found in policy. It is found in the heart. In the duty to bend and even to break laws that go against this most fundamental of covenantal promises – to be created in the image of God. For when hearing the cries of innocent children, God shouts, God rages, God cries, God is never silenced. God cannot be sequestered to a back room sanctuary and told to sit down.
In Parashat Balak, the King contracted out his dirty work to a sorcerer named Balaam. For his own part, Balaam was blinded by his own power and influence. Taken in by the king and all the trappings of a well-kept man. He too wanted to curse the new refugees encamped on his border. But Balaam came to see the sacred embodiment of every human being, even if it took a talking donkey to teach him. With rod in hand Balaam finally woke up to his the Divine conscience inside of him, softening his heart and opening his mind. “Then the LORD uncovered Balam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in his way….I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Bamidbar 22:31,38) When it comes to Divine conscience, laws bend, contracts are broken, curses become blessings and prophecy issues forth.
Are we Jews to be the heirs to Edom and Moab? Shall we look upon the tired and hungry, those who want a better life and say “You shall not pass?” Shall we look upon the strangers huddled at our borders and say you are nothing but an infestation of fire bugs and grasshoppers? Or are we the Children of Israel? Are we instructed by the priest to “Love your neighbor” and the prophet who enjoins us to to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger?
Ours is a covenant of conscience with a God whose outstretched arms, inspire our outstretch our arms. Whose mighty hands inspire our mighty hands. Just as God reached into the world, so must we reach into the world. Our covenant turns maledictions into benedictions and closed fists into open palms.
No doubt when my Zayde Morris floated into New York Harbor as a boy, someone lifted a weary finger to point out the poem inscribed forever onto the Statue of Liberty. For she is, as the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus named her, the “The New Colossus.” Whose towering figure stands in contrast to the Greek warrior. The ancient Colossus was a guardian to keep foreigners out. Lazarus called the Statue of Liberty the “Mother of Exiles,” whose flaming torch is a sign of welcome to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We who have enjoyed the liberties offered by America’s open door and we who have inherited an ancient covenant, owe a special responsibility to alleviate the suffering to those who come knocking today.