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. Zayde Morris came as an unaccompanied child and when he passed under the lamp of Lady Liberty, he was ready to begin a new life. 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 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, pickpockets and robbers when they have the courage.” He was speaking about my family and my people.
My Zayde was running away from a world of darkness. His parents, my great-great grandparents, could not leave the Eastern Hungarian town where they lived. They were poor and were victims of harsh and violent antisemitism. They made the agonizing decision the oppressed often make when faced with a dark destiny – they stayed in Hungary and sent him to America. They never saw each other again. – Zayde was a refugee on the run for his life to a place that seemed not to want him.
Jews have always been seen as a threat to the world order. Mostly because we are stubborn in our faith and our conviction that God demands us to question everything. We’re not complacent. It’s not our thing. As such, we are seen as a threat to those who want to hold onto power, using words like, “invaders, outsiders, rats” to describe who we are.
When I listen to pundits and politicians lambasting these wanderers to our borders as rapists and criminals who are here to destroy our society. When I hear of these newcomers are characterized as bugs who seek to “infest” our community. When I see inconsolable children held in camps away from their parents. When I read of a child who cries and cannot be picked up to be hugged because it’s against policy. When the poor, meek, and desperate are made fun of for being poor, meek, and desperate. When they cry, shout, and whimper what do we hear?
I cannot be deaf to them.
I hear an echo.
I hear the sounds of the past.
I hear the repeating voices of my own life and the life of my people for thousands of years.
In this week’s Torah Portion, Balak, we read of the same dynamic that we see today. “Moab dreaded the Israelites and said to the Elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass in the field.” (Num. 22:3) The King of Moab, as the Kings Amora and Edom before him, and the police commissioner of New York after him and pundits today saw in these migrants only monsters.
Blinded by xenophobia, these men could not see what the Israelites saw in themselves. The Midrash relates that the people were messengers of peace and blessing. (Bamidbar Rabbah 20), but these rulers only sought to curse those who wandered the wasteland.
The answer to these questions of conscience are not found only in policy. Policy is a means. Heart and soul are the ends. Let us ask if we obey 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? What shall become of the Dreamers?
In Parashat Balak the king hired a private contractor – a sorcerer named Balaam. Taken in by the king’s opulence, he too was blind. But God had other plans.
With rod in hand Balaam woke up to the Divine conscience within. “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) A softening of his heart and opening of his mind.
When it comes to Divine conscience, laws bend. Contracts brake.
Curses become blessings. Punditry becomes prophecy.
The Torah teaches that there is a moral duty to challenge laws that go against this most fundamental of covenantal promises – to be created in the image of God. When hearing the sobs of innocent children, God shouts, God rages, God cries, God is never silenced.
God will not be sequestered to a back room sanctuary and told to sit down.
Are we Jews to be the heirs to Edom and Moab? Shall we look upon the tired and hungry, the terrified and ravaged, those who like my great-grandfather arrived at the port of entry as children begging for 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 the ones who taught the world to live in God’s image? To “Love your neighbor?” To care for “the stranger, the widow and the orphan?”
Ours is a covenant of conscience with a God who is global in reach. Just as God reached into the world, so must we reach into the world. God’s outstretched arms, inspire us to stretch out our arms. Whose mighty hands inspire our mighty hands. Who bore us on the shoulders of eagles so that we can bear others upon our shoulders.
We must overcome the voice that urges us to curse those living in tents at our borders, to malign them, to send them away. We must find the voice within us, that voice of conscience that tells us to bless them, advocate for them, fight for them. For they reflect the Divine Image as much as you and I. Our covenant turns maledictions into benedictions and closed fists into open palms. If a pagan sorcerer can do it, then so can we, the children of the prophets.
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 of those who come knocking today.
This is our covenant. This is our inheritance.