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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


May 5, 2017  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Did we really mean what we said during the Seder?

By RABBI MICHAEL TOROP Temple Beth-El, St Petersburg

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who introduced Dr. Rev Martin Luther King before he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, reflected in his remarks on being a rabbi in Berlin as Hitler came to power, and said: “The most important thing that I learned was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence … America must not become a nation of onlookers.”

His words continue to inspire us as Jews and as Americans to not be onlookers; to speak out and act with the conviction that comes from a deep commitment to Jewish values as we understand them. Typically, as Jews we seek to understand our values through the prism of our sacred text, THE Torah, and the rabbinic teachings and interpretations through the generations.

Just a few weeks ago we sat at our Seder tables and reenacted and relived the experience of our people. We fulfilled the mandate, “In every generation, we are all obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt.” The Exodus narrative, the experience of being strangers in a strange land, and then to experience freedom, our foundational story as Jews, underpins the most often repeated mitzvah of the entire Torah. Judaism takes seriously this mandate by repeating no less than 36 times the instruction to be kind to the stranger, to welcome the stranger, to not oppress the stranger.

As slaves in Egypt we were treated as the “other,” as the people of a different nation, religion and culture, who ultimately will escape to freedom and begin a journey through the wilderness to Israel. But, we should also remember that after being liberated from the oppressive bondage of Egypt, we then wandered for 40 years as refugees without a home, without a country, without a secure future that we knew we could count on. We were amongst the world’s very first refugees.

The Talmud says: “One must always pray in a House that has windows:” As Jews we know that our spiritual homes cannot separate us from the world outside the glass. We are called to live out our values in the world, and primarily the value of caring for the Stranger, for we were that Stranger. That, in itself, should be enough for us to understand the power of this mandate, but there are a few other additional sources that inform us as Jews.

We know that the obligation to protect human life stands at the center of our tradition. Stemming from a verse in Leviticus which reads, “Neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbor,” the classical rabbis developed the overarching principle of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), which asserts the supreme responsibility of protecting individuals who are in potentially life-threatening situations. The obligation to protect life is considered of such great import that it trumps virtually all other legal considerations. Combine this value of life with the Torah’s special concern for those people in society who are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and we understand why the Israelites are instructed upon entering the land of Canaan to designate arei miklat, cities of refuge, which would function as asylums for the perpetrators of unintentional manslaughter from violent retribution by their victims’ relatives. If our tradition displays such concern for people who have themselves committed murder, even if unintentionally, how much more so should we feel compelled to protect tens of millions of refugees, the bulk of whom are not themselves criminals but rather innocent bystanders driven from their homes as a result of war and violence.

Far from being silent onlookers that Rabbi Prinz exhorted all Americans not to be, Jewish tradition demands a much greater response of attitude, action, responsibility and advocacy. It is not just the simple “truth” of our obligation to “welcome the stranger;” it is to treat them like one of our own citizens. It is to love them, it is to protect them, and provide them with sanctuary, and it is a core Jewish value that we cannot ignore.

We all are painfully aware of the refugee crisis the world is facing. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there are more than 20 million people classified as refugees in the world today, and more than 60 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. The refugee crisis is real and painful to watch. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see Jewish communities around the state and across the country working to protect the rights of refugees and the services that support them. Many congregations have identified themselves as a “welcoming congregation” under the auspices of HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). Some congregations are even becoming active partners with agencies such as Gulf Coast Jewish & Community Services in the resettlement and welcoming of refugees into our midst.

To our community here in Pinellas and Pasco Counties, the message to us is clear. If we meant what we said and what we did at our Pesach Seder, and if we believe that the ethical and moral mandates of our tradition ought to guide our lives, then we must not be silent onlookers while the strangers of our age are turned away, are treated with disdain, are oppressed are not welcomed into our midst. We know the heart of the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.

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