A Jewish Perspective on the Immigration Crisis

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Any of us who have been on the Internet at all during the last month or so have surely seen the countless articles, video clips, photos, and sound bytes calling out the grotesque actions of ICE at the Mexican border. People from all walks of life and all political inclinations have condemned the despicable practice of separating children from their families and are joining in a united outcry which has been heard around the world.
Jewish activists and organizations have been on the front lines – protesting and getting arrested (Rabbi Waskow, you’re my hero), writing articles, getting in comment wars – doing whatever we can to stand for a cause that many of us perceive to be indivisibly bound up with our own. Our people were turned away from countless borders and kicked out of innumerable countries which they had called home, eventually finding solace in this country of immigrants, where we have, for the most part, flourished for the past century. Now that we have a voice, we’re using it to stand up for those who don’t.
With these thoughts racing through my mind, I cracked open my Chumash (Pentateuch) this morning to do the daily Torah reading. As I flipped over to this week’s Parsha, my eyes bulged in disbelief when I saw a verse that seemed to be talking right to me.
Do not glorify a destitute person in his grievance.” - Shemot 23:3
Wow. Take a second and let that sink in. Do NOT glorify a destitute person in his grievance. Hold on a second.
What?! DON’T have special consideration for the unfortunate?! DON’T glorify the struggle of the oppressed?!
What on earth could the Torah be getting at here? From the standpoint of liberal Western society, not giving special attention and sympathy to the “destitute” is the mark of a cruel and unfeeling individual. It’s the exact opposite of taking a stand for the downtrodden, of being a voice for the voiceless. Does the Torah want us to ignore the plight of these people? Why would the Torah encourage such behavior? How can the very Scripture that taught us to be a people refute the experience that we’ve had during the past 2000 years in exile?!
Let’s take a second to examine the language of this verse.
Although we are quick to get defensive when reading what appears to be an archaic bible verse that contradicts our present moral standards, let’s make sure that’s what the Torah is really saying here.
From the cushioned, birds eye perspective of an external party, it is far too easy to patronize those who have been through the ringer. We love to read up on other people’s struggles and watch TV programs about their pain. It makes us feel something, helps us fill the vacuum created by a lifestyle and society that encourages emotional detachment and loss of introspection.
Yet the silky smooth expressions of sympathy and crocodile tears cried on behalf of the oppressed are practically meaningless to a suffering individual who knows full well that you’ve never stood in their shoes. To such individuals your sympathy can be grating, hypocritical. For if we all truly sympathized, would we not be fighting oppression at its root source? Would we not be ensuring that our fellow human suffers no longer, rather than bemoaning the extent of their suffering?
This is the message of the Torah. ACTION, not words, ACTION, not solidarity expressed, ACTION, not empty sympathy. Don’t sit back on your couch sipping Rosé and bemoaning the fate of oppressed and destitute individuals in the world. Don’t write a Facebook post (that only your sympathetic friends will see) expressing solidarity for a cause you’ve never taken a physical stand for. Through the very act of doing just that you are exerting your privilege.
Take action. Take the fight to the core issues that cause people to be destitute, that cause people to be mistreated, that cause people to suffer. Don’t just sit there and pity them while you enjoy a fine spread at the latest non-profit gala or watch YouTube videos and movies about their struggles. That’s not working on behalf of the betterment of the world. That’s self-indulgent emotional stimulation. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re doing it for THEM. You’re doing it for YOU.
That’s the Torah’s message here. If you want to do something for the oppressed, DO something for the oppressed. “Getting educated on the issues” is not enough. Praising them for their resilience is not enough. Reacting with outrage on Facebook and then slipping right back into your regular routine IS NOT ENOUGH. Don’t glorify their struggle. Glorification is a detached state of mind, detached from the pain at the core of another’s experience yet using it for the sake of rousing your own tired soul - without (God forbid) injuring it in the process. Do you really think their suffering is GLORIOUS to them?! WORK to solve poverty. WORK to end systemic oppression. WORK to help them. That is the mission of the Jew. That is the mission of humanity.
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