This Passover, let us step into the shoes of the refugee

At Passover, Jews will gather to retell the story of the Jewish people’s struggle for liberation. For those of us who immigrated here or whose ancestors immigrated here, it is a story that resonates with our identity as Americans: once we were enslaved, now we are free.

This year in particular, in the aftermath of a deadly chemical attack in Syria, Passover offers a call to action to all Americans to defend human dignity and uphold our common humanity.

The world is in the midst of the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis of our time. Due to a series of conflicts, more than 65 million people have fled their homes. The number of displaced persons in the world surpasses even World War II numbers.

Too many Americans have turned our backs on the people who most need our help. Despite near-universal commitment to the concept of “never again,” time after time the Western world turns away from the brutalities and inhumanities of tyrants. We close our doors and shut our hearts to unimaginable human suffering.

“You know the soul of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the Land of Egypt,” the Bible instructs us. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah describes how Pharaoh’s daughter took in a baby refugee—rather than allow his lifeless body to wash up upon the shores of the Nile. Defying the laws of Egypt, she hid the boy and raised him as her own.  She named him Moses, meaning, “I drew him out of the water.”  Moses became the great emancipator. There would have been no Judaism—and hence no Christianity or Islam—had Pharaoh’s daughter not opened her heart to the cries of a baby and extended her hand to save him.

The point of 400 years of slavery was to sensitize us to the horrors of oppression. Why do we emphasize this time of profound suffering? It is to compel us to step into the shoes of the persecuted—to imagine that we were there as slaves in Egypt: “This is the bread of affliction,” we say at the start of the Seder. Step into the shoes of the refugee, the persecuted and the afraid.

To step into the other’s shoes is the beginning of morality and the first step of compassion. Try to imagine yourself on a tempest-tossed rickety boat fleeing Assad’s chemicals and ISIS’s brutalities. Don’t you remember? It hasn’t been too long. You don’t have to go all the way back to Egypt. Just think back two or three or four generations. We Jews were on those boats—the wretched refuse that no one wanted. The world shut its doors to us too. Jews, especially, must bear witness to the incomparable human suffering sweeping the world. Judaism demands that we relieve suffering because it is not our human purpose to suffer. God seeks life, liberty, prosperity, safety, and dignity for human beings.

Accordingly, I will be leading a mission from New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to Greece and Germany this spring to hear the cries of suffering children, and witness the anguish of adults who have fled their countries. We will look into the eyes of orphans whose parents drowned on the high seas or were blown to bits in a low basement. And we will reevaluate the claim that, somehow, these bedraggled souls pose unparalleled security risks to the United States.

America is a land of immigrants, established as a place of refuge. Practically all of our families came from somewhere else, fleeing persecution, or in search of a better life. We judge you here on your deeds, not your race, religion, gender, or country of origin.

May we forever remain a beacon of light, a shining city on a hill.

About the Author
Named among New York's "Most Influential Religious Leaders" by the New York Observer, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. City & State New York magazine named him "the borough's most influential voice" for Manhattan's more than 300,000 Jews. He previously served as executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
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