Families Belong Together: The Jewish Promise of Justice

Rabbi Bellows speaks at a Families Belong Together Rally in Deep River, CT. Photo credit: Bruce Josephy
Rabbi Bellows speaks at a Families Belong Together Rally in Deep River, CT. Photo credit: Bruce Josephy

My sweet son, Spencer, snoozed peacefully in my arms the other day. I cradled him and was consciously aware of the primal, and almost mystical, connection between parent and child. And, yet, it was impossible to enjoy the tenderness of the moment without then feeling my heart break for the thousands of children taken from their parents’ arms at our southern border, and who have yet to be returned to their families.

Among us, we may disagree about immigration laws or how those who are seeking asylum should legally access the safety of the United States of America. Yet, as a people who are keenly aware of the burden of being without home or nation for centuries, we also have a deep, clear, and moral sense of how to treat families and young children with humanity and decency.

During a time of seemingly insurmountable divisions and challenges in our nation’s history, it is often helpful to return to our holy texts which have provided guidance and wisdom for thousands of years. The Torah demands from us compassion and empathy when encountering a stranger in our midst:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

Reminders to treat the stranger with fairness and righteousness are repeated 35 more times in the Torah, more than any other commandment in the entire text.

Moreover, we are reminded of the miracle of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in our prayers THREE times a day. Interestingly, we recall the moment of the Exodus not to merely celebrate it and say, hey, that was a great thing. Instead, we are reminded of it so that we remember that there are still so many others who are not yet free, not yet safe, not yet in a home they can call their own.

Our precious America seems to be standing on a precipice, as we work hard to live up to our highest ideals of morality and justice. We are proudly a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, nationalities, heritages, and traditions.  This is what makes us strong, this is what makes us compassionate, this is what makes us wise, and – dare I say – this is what makes us great.

We ourselves are descendants of immigrants, and we are all too aware of what has happened to members of the Jewish people throughout history when migration was prohibited, feared, or halted. We know all too well how it feels to be that stranger, to be that family praying for safe haven or refuge.

In case the repetitive commandments in the Torah weren’t enough, the Book of Deuteronomy then states unequivocally:

Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And all the people shall say, Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

A beautiful quote from Ferdinand Isserman, which is included in our siddur and frequently shared during our synagogue’s worship liturgy, states, “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” In this critical moment, we pray, and we act. Our prayers need not be passive, and our actions need not be fruitless.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

Let us be that promise of justice. Let us be the hope of mercy. Let us bring about the vision for a world redeemed and at peace.

May the One who makes peace in the high heavens above bring peace down here to us, to all Israel and to all the world, and we say, Amen.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru Amen.

About the Author
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. A native of Skokie, Illinois, she received her BA in Psychology from Brandeis University in 1999 and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.
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