Welcome the Stranger, Stand for the Oppressed

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

A value is only a value when it is tested. In the past week our nation and its constituent communities have experienced forces for change that have caused the world to question our constitutional foundation.

While the values of the United States are constitutionally determined, our Jewish values are Covenantal – and our Covenant is with God. A story from our tradition is relevant to our current situation:

When Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael from his camp, they wandered in the wilderness until their food and water ran out. Hagar placed Ishmael under a tree and walked a distance away so that she would not see the child die. (Genesis 21:14 – 16)

The angels approached God, reminding God that in the far future, when the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, many would flee into the wilderness and run out of water. The descendants of Ishmael would remind them of Avraham’s banishment of Ishmael and refuse to help them – causing many of them to die of thirst. The angels beseeched God to allow Ishmael to die – for if he died now the Jews would not die in the future.

God responded, “We don’t hold the innocent responsible for the actions of the guilty.”

And neither should we today. If Jewish values are to mean anything they must be applied to current issues. Our history is replete with well meaning governments whose LEGAL actions reflected values that are antithetical to the teachings of our Torah.

This past weekend was International Holocaust Remembrance Day which is a painful reminder of similar policies that caused millions of our people to be discriminated against. Many thousands of Jewish immigrants fled a hostile world only to be turned away, condemning them to death. The United States closed its borders then. How can we condone closing our borders now?

In a similar vein, our hearts go out to the Islamic communities in Texas and Canada. Religious freedom is a right, enshrined by our forefathers in the Constitution. These attacks on the Muslim community are an attack on us all. Religious sanctuaries are intended to be safe places where all can come and pray as a member of a community.

Jews especially are called to live out our values in our daily lives. How will you exemplify these values of welcoming the stranger and standing for the oppressed?