Tag Archives: Matot

The Trauma of a Migrant Nation and What to Do About It

3 Aug


Homestead child detention center (photo by Miami Herald March 31, 2019, https://images.app.goo.gl/22KMEeYni7rPHZ7G6)

Note: When I attended services on Saturday morning August 3 and delivered this sermon, I was not yet aware of the breaking news that all children were transferred out of the Homestead detention center that morning, effectively closing the facility. This is a modest victory for the protests against the facility, though the ultimate fate of the children is unknown as of this writing. The larger crisis of the US Government’s inhumane detention of asylum seekers, including separation of children from families, still demands our attention.

Let me tell you a story. It is a story of a caravan of migrants. These are people who are oppressed, who are exhausted and who are deeply traumatized. Yet, despite their numerous hardships they still stubbornly dream of a better future. And so they embark on a very long walk to freedom. Along the way they endure all kinds of hardships: hunger, ravaging thirst, attacks from enemies. They are tormented by the elements. And finally, after the journey of a lifetime, they nearly reach their Promised Land. They’re so close. They can almost smell it. But there is one final obstacle for this bedraggled, beaten but not broken people. They have to pass through the border of another land in order to achieve their freedom. In a mix of hope and desperation, their leaders send ambassadors with a message for the leader and they make the case for entry. The response that they receive is no. They are not welcome The bedraggled people standing at that border is us. The oppression that our ancestors fled was slavery in Egypt. The inhospitable nation was Edom. What our ancestors sought was asylum. (Adapted from Rabbi Sharon Brous: https://ikar-la.org/sermons/our-nation-is-in-crisis-there-are-several-good-reasons-to-do-nothing-about-it/)

This account appeared in our Torah reading a few weeks ago in Parashat Hukkat (Num. 20: 14-21). We reflect on this narrative as a great injustice, a nation kicking us when we’re already down. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the ethics in treatment of the stranger. No fewer than 36 times we are reminded that we were strangers, and our duty is to love the stranger. 

Yet, in this week’s Torah portion Matot-Masei, as we come to the end of Numbers, we find a major system breakdown. It comes at the very end of Moses’s career. He could have ridden off quietly into the sunset. Instead, Moses embarks on an act of genocidal vengeance, apparently at God’s direction (Num 31). The Israelites invade Midian as revenge for their seduction of the Israelites into a pagan orgy in Numbers 25. Small detail—there it was the Moabites, here it’s the Midianites.  The Israelite army kills every Midianite man. Then they return with captured women, children and booty. Does Moses grant them a ticker tape parade? Hardly. In fact, Moses chastises his soldiers that they were not brutal enough! He commands them to kill every non-virgin female and every male child among the captives. One more small detail: Moses lived in Midian for a period of his life and that his wife Tziporah and father-in-law Yitro are Midianites. 

Just try to grasp this. In one of his last official acts in public leadership, Moses calls for genocide against his own wife’s nation, the cousins of his children. This is maniacal. If it were up to me to edit the Torah and expunge problematic texts, Chapter 31 of Numbers would be the first to go. It makes me ill reading it. In reviewing my personal files from my twenty years in the rabbinate, I have never spoken about or taught this chapter. Somehow this year I could not avoid it any longer. 

The Rabbis of our tradition were not blind to the problematic nature of this text. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moses offered terms of peace to Midian before the invasion. According to Bemidbar Rabbah, Moses was not deemed responsible because the zealot priest Pinchas led the campaign. Explanations like these would be laughable if they weren’t so horrific. And yet, the Rabbis of the Midrash deserve credit for their implicit questions about the text. We may not buy their answers, but they too are wondering along with us what to make of this text. 

In reflecting on this ugly chapter, my eyes opened to another reading that draws upon psychology. I’m not trained in psychology, and I wish to tread very carefully. However, let us consider the immense trauma that Moses witnessed and experienced in his life. He bore witness to slavery and the oppression of the taskmasters. Once out of Egypt, the people complained constantly. They were thirsty, they were hungry, they were scared. Throughout, Moses leads them and protects them. God was going to destroy them over the golden calf, but Moses intervenes. Moses endures a lot more including the spies episode and the attempted coup of his cousin Korah. Finally, in Numbers 20, Moses’s patience wears thin. He yells at the people when they complain of thirst, and he strikes the rock. As a result, God forbids him to enter the Promised Land. Later on, at Baal-Peor, the Israelites are drawn into a pagan orgy. Chapter 31 is evidence that Moses completely snapped in his outburst against Midian. I believe the accumulated trauma of his career took a tragic toll on him, and he unleashed a violent rage. The abused became the abuser.

Many Biblical heroes are presented in their full humanity, and we learn from them as much what not to do than what to do. Abraham, Moses and David all committed grievous acts of violence and other morally problematic acts. With Moses, we don’t need to justify the massacre, but we can at least try to understand how it came about. Only under these circumstances can I justify keeping this chapter in our sacred text. If I’m going to square Numbers 31 with the rest of the Torah, if I am to continue to respect Moses for his immense contribution as a founder of our nation, psychology may be a useful tool to at least begin to make sense out of something so utterly senseless. 

In looking at events of our day, I also struggle to make sense out of the senseless. Last week I went to Homestead to see as best as I could the atrocity of a child detention center in our own backyard where our government sends migrant children. The Homestead Temporary Influx Care Facility (“Homestead”) is located on the grounds of Homestead Air Reserve Base. Officially, children ages 13 – 17 are sent to Homestead directly from the border once Customs and Border Patrol processes them, yet children as young as eight years old have been held there. 

Homestead is a secure facility, surrounded by an 8’ chain link fence with a privacy covering. An organization called Witness Homestead (from whose website much of the following information was found) was formed by activists to monitor the facility. They set up a tent outside. They set up ladders across the street from the the facility. I climbed on one of these ladders and looked out over the fence into the grounds. Sometimes kids are seen on the grounds, but they otherwise spend the day under a tent then sleep in the barracks in a grey concrete building.  Entrance and exits are blocked by fences and gates are staffed by security personnel.  Children understand that they are not free to leave, and have been told that they will be arrested by local police and ICE and deported if they do.

The average stay at Homestead is 67 days, and some children are there for several months. Miami Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in one visit to the facility interviewed a child that had been there for 9 months, in violation of a court order limiting detainment to 20 days.  

Homestead is run by Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., a private, for-profit company.  Its parent company is Caliburn International.  Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is on the Board of Caliburn. Caliburn was recently awarded a no-bid extension of their contract to run Homestead through November for $341 million dollars.  The contract stipulates they will receive $775 per child per day. By comparison, the Palm Beach County School System spends about $50 per child per day. When it comes to child detention centers, our tax dollars are enriching corporate executives so that they may imprison children in squalid conditions.

A year ago, the Administration’s family separation policy went into effect. After much public outcry the Administration officially said they would back off from the practice, even though it’s been found to have continued—some 900 children have been separated from their parents in the past year. This summer we’ve seen increasing revelations of the horrific conditions in the detention centers at our border and around the country, which are unsanitary, unsafe and cruel. We have read stories of families torn apart, of imprisoned children denied toothpaste, and soap and diapers and medical treatment. In these detention centers there are reports of physical abuse and sexual violence towards adults and children. We’ve read about the deprivation of food and drink. Some held in detention centers have been forced to drink toilet water to stay alive. Most appalling of all at least seven children in these centers have died since last year. We have failed as a nation in allowing this crisis to occur.  

We as Jews cannot remain silent. We too are border people. We too are asylum seekers. We remember the St. Louis carrying nearly 1000 Jews fleeing the cauldron of Nazi Europe. The St. Louis came to the shores of the US but was denied entry. The boat turned back to Europe. Many of those Jews perished in the Shoah. We as Jews understand trauma. The Torah presents different two different models for dealing with national trauma. One is the approach of Numbers 31. Only our suffering matters, and nobody else suffered like we did. The rest of the world be damned. Moreover, our parents and grandparents came to this country legally, so why should I care about people coming here illegally? As much as I want to rip Numbers 31 out of the Torah, it’s there, and we need to listen to its echoes in our world today. We have some legitimate fears based on our communal history.  If we’re not careful, our fears can lead us to silence and indifference to the suffering in our midst. Numbers 31 is a cautionary tale. In contemporary Jewish life much of our communal thinking derived from communal trauma from the Shoah. This trauma affects so much of our psyche and may be misdirected. Some white Jews in America show indifference or outward hostility towards migrants and people of color. Some Israeli Jews show indifference or actively participate in the plight of their Palestinian neighbors. Given our history of communal trauma, it is one of the unspoken tragedies of our people that sometimes the abused become abusers. 

Then there’s the other strand of Torah, the prominent strand, with a very different approach to trauma. You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah reminds us that every human being is created in the image of God. Our history of oppression has inspired many Jews to  pave the way for greater justice in the world for all, and when there is justice for all, the Jewish people benefit. Elie Wiesel, z”l, witness to and survivor of the Shoah, taught us to to reject the dehumanizing term “illegal alien.” He said, “No human being is illegal.”  Further, Wiesel taught, “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.” We cannot afford to be indifferent in the face of oppression. Let us transcend our fears. Let us crawl out of our cocoon. Let us bear witness and cry out against the injustice in our midst. May God grant us strength to meet this challenge and to bring about justice and peace for all. 

The Power of Words

18 Jul

There’s a Jewish expression that one is likely to hear from observant Jews. Those words are bli neder, literally, without an oath. Despite the inherent negativity of the statement, it is generally used to commit to something. For example, “Honey, what time will you be home?” To which the spouse responds, “Bli neder, I’ll be home by 6:00 for dinner.”
Words matter. Words have power. That is the message of the opening of today’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei. Moses instructs the heads of the tribes saying: Ish ki-yidor neder l’Adonai o hishav’a shevu’a l’esor isar al nafsho lo yachel devaro—If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing a self- obligation, he shall not break his pledge; k’khol hayotze mipiv yaase, he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

Rabbi Harold Kushner comments, “The power of speech is one of the unique gifts of a human being, a power we share with no other creature. In these rules governing vows and oaths, we see that human beings, like God, have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy. By uttering words, an Israelite can impose an obligation on himself or herself as binding as God’s commands in the Torah.”

Words matter. Words have power. Words can change the world. Yet, words are sometimes ambiguous. The meaning of words spoken by one person might not be understood the same way by another. The misunderstanding that results unfortunately can lead to bitter conflict and, God forbid, sometimes war.

The meaning of words on paper is the top news story this week as the US, together with its P5+1 partners concluded an agreement with Iran to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. To be clear, the agreement delays Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Is a 15-year delay a good thing? On the surface, it should be. If we were discussing rational actors, there would be widespread relief that the world will have fewer nuclear bombs for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, with respect to Iran, we are not discussing rational actors. Its mullahs fantasize about wiping Israel off the map. A bomb in the hands of religious fundamentalists is a terrifying prospect. Furthermore, the conventional weaponry that Iran will now be able to purchase with the lifting of sanctions is not much less frightening. Yossi Klein Halevi, a well-respected centrist journalist in Israel has said that Jewish history teaches us that when enemies threaten to destroy us, we believe them.

Like many of you, I’ve read what I could about the accord. I also participated in a conference call for rabbis convened by AIPAC and another by the Rabbinical Assembly. There is indeed much to be concerned about this agreement. I don’t claim to have any more expertise than anyone else in this room. Like many people, I have my deep reservations about it. It’s interesting to note that within Israel, not only has Prime Minister Netanyahu voiced protest—we all expected that—but so have his liberal opponents in the Knesset, Yitzhak Herzog, Tzippi Livni and Yair Lapid. In coming days and weeks, there will be spirited debate in Congress whether or not to accept this deal. We will all be following this closely.

I’ve tried to keep up with the vast amount of coverage of this issue and have tried to find statements that speak to me on a spiritual level. One such piece was written in the Times of Israel by Yehuda Kurtzer, a renowned Jewish educator and thought leader affiliated with the Hartman Institute.

He writes the following:

“You negotiate without ever letting go of the weaponry that makes your negotiating possible, and without ever letting go of the fear which enables you to use that weaponry when needed without hesitation. This is part of the existential state of Jewishness in light of the 20th Century, and many of the preceding centuries too. Keep reciting the ve’hi she’amda of the Passover Seder – the mantra that in every generation they rise up to destroy us – even when you have tools at your disposal to fight against those enemies and not merely rely on divine intervention.

“But in addition to this vigilance, the very act of negotiating is the act of faith in the belief — the deeply Jewish belief — that you can and must commit on an ongoing basis to creating different realities than the ones you have inherited, and different realities than the ones which will be inevitable as the result of the kind of stagnation that has its own momentum. Why else have agency if you don’t take seriously the opportunities that it creates?

“[T]he only way I see forward is to negotiate, to agitate, to activate, to legislate, to investigate — perhaps once in a while, to pause and meditate — to do the kinds of actions in the world that make hope, “Hatikvah,” something which is neither banal nor messianic but the mechanism that changes status quos rather than allowing us to be imprisoned by them. This commitment to hope need not be belittled as naivete; it is in fact, a commitment to responsibility.”
On this Shabbat, we contemplate the significance of words. Words have power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. Words declare war and words declare peace. We are witnessing a challenging juncture in history that will hinge on the interpretation of words of a complex document. May we all be guided by sound judgement in how we ourselves use our words towards one another so that we can contribute to a global atmosphere in which words lead not to violence and fear but to trust and hope.

#TieBlog #Matot

18 Jul
On a Mission from God

On a Mission from God

This tie could work for many Torah portions, but seems particularly apt for Parashat Matot. Throughout the reading we are reminded in different ways that the Israelites are on a mission from God. There are positive and negative applications of this notion. The portion begins with laws about vows. Invoking God’s name in a promise to do something is a big deal and should not be taken lightly, according to the Torah. The particulars of vows as described here are anachronistic; namely, we cannot imagine in a Western society women’s vows being annulled by their fathers and husbands. Nevertheless, the concept of vows should prompt us to think about the power of our words and give us pause, particularly when we swear in the name of God. The contemporary practice of swearing before testifying in court is a vestige of this ancient practice. Whenever we speak, it is worthy to think of ourselves on a mission from God.

The portion’s discussion of the war against Midian exemplifies taking “on a mission from God” too far. Moses is incensed that the soldiers “only” killed the Midianite men and not the women as well. As great as Moses was, this is his low moment. A similar situation is found in http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/translations/shabbat-zakhortzav/haftarah-portion/shabbat-zakhor when Saul does not follow through to the letter on the destruction of Amalek. Samuel, like Moses, condemns Saul’s excessive mercy. Rabbi Louis Jacobs once said in reference to that text, “I believe that Samuel heard it (i.e., the command to destroy Amalek), but I don’t believe God said it.”* I believe a similar interpretation applies to Moses. In this case, he misunderstood God who usually commands kindness towards the stranger. Moses is led astray by his understanding of “a mission from God.”

Moses redeems himself to some extent by insisting that the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe join in the efforts to conquer the Promised Land, before they settle in the pasture land east of the Jordan River. Moses insists that the entire people must be all in to fulfill their mission from God.

As we study Parashat Matot this week, let us reflect on what it means to be on a mission from God and how that concept applies to us today.

*Cited in Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Living a Life That Matters, New York: Anchor Books, 2001, p. 96.