Refugee Torah

One year ago, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, after several decades of attempting to fight terror and build a democratic nation. The withdrawal itself went poorly, and the decision to withdraw has its proponents and detractors. I’m not interested in getting into political reasoning or military strategy here, only in highlighting that as a result of American presence in Afghanistan and subsequent American absence, a number of Afghan people have needed to flee their homes and many of them have arrived here (with more still trying).

One year ago, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, after several decades of attempting to fight terror and build a democratic nation. The withdrawal itself went poorly, and the decision to withdraw has its proponents and detractors. I’m not interested in getting into political reasoning or military strategy here, only in highlighting that as a result of American presence in Afghanistan and subsequent American absence, a number of Afghan people have needed to flee their homes and many of them have arrived here (with more still trying).

These refugees are in harm’s way in part because of the choices our elected officials made, and we are responsible to them. As Rabbi Will Berkowitz, CEO of Jewish Family Services in Seattle, wrote in an op-ed last September, the United States “must finish the mission. The mission isn’t complete if we leave these people to die.” And the mission isn’t complete if we also don’t help those who arrive here in Washington state to rebuild their lives however best they can. JFS does good work resettling refugees (among the many social services it provides).

It feels startlingly appropriate that the Torah portion this week speaks directly to how we should support refugees, and immigrants more broadly.

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For your God is God of “gods” and Lord of “lords”, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You must revere God: only your God shall you worship, to [God] shall you hold fast, and by God’s name shall you swear. (Deuteronomy 10:16-20)

Here we have a spiritual-ethical-spiritual sandwich.

Ethical action begins with spiritual work. We are told to soften and open our hearts - it is all too easy to avoid the pain and overwhelm from really penetrating our consciousness, whether through rationalization or distraction or just shutting down. I shut down sometimes when reading the news - there is just too much to process, and that overload is paralyzing. Distraction can be helpful to recharge and restore a sense of agency, but it is easy to stay distracted by things that are more immediate, urgent, enjoyable, etc. And rationalizing is so very easy when everything matters - “We need to be focusing on Ukraine / China / Mother Earth / Democracy…” Softening and opening our hearts takes courage and vulnerability.

Once we open our hearts to full awareness, and soften our necks so we aren’t stuck in one perspective, Deuteronomy suggests we will displace the idolatry of our own egoic interests by acknowledging God, whose “lordship” is a reminder that we aren’t the center of the universe. This is at the core of almost every spiritual practice I can think of. Once we don’t place ourselves at the center, we can see ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem. We have an honored place, and every creature has its role in service of others. Heart aware and open, neck flexible enough to see multiple perspectives, and ego decentered, we are finally ready for ethical action.

God is described as hael hagadol hagibor v’hanora, “the great, the mighty, the awesome God”, a phrase so potent it entered into a key prayer, Avot v’Imahot. But God’s greatness isn’t about the spiritual realm! God’s greatness comes from “showing no favor and taking no bribe, but upholding the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriending the stranger, providing food and clothing.” Then the text explicitly says, “you too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We use our most central story - the enslavement in and then exodus from Egypt - as a way to decenter ourselves, to reimagine our purpose as being in service to those most in harm’s way.

To be spiritual is to be ethical. Ethics is a practical outcome of spiritual work.

When we fuse our spiritual practices with ethical care, and our spiritual concerns with ethical actions, we “revere God, worship God, hold fast to God, swear by God’s name.”

Where Deuteronomy talks about the “stranger”, it isn’t referring to people we don’t know. The Klein dictionary lists for the word ger, “foreigner, stranger, temporary dweller, newcomer.” It is referring to immigrants. There are so many ways to live out this Torah text today. We can challenge xenophobia and create a welcoming society for immigrants seeking a better life for any reason. There are asylum seekers from Latin America and elsewhere around the world fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse, or persecution for sexual or gender identity. We can donate to organizations that provide legal representation and fight policies that strip humans of dignity (like detention centers). We can learn more about Ukraine’s history and honor its complex national story, and help places like JFS resettle Ukrainian refugees.

This week, I hope you will devote some attention to Afghan refugees in particular, remembering that many of the people now estranged from a brutal Taliban regime are here (if they’re lucky) because they wanted to help Americans build a better Afghanistan. And if you want to share thoughts or ideas with me, please send an email or arrange a call.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Jay LeVine