The Refugee Crisis: An Unetanneh Tokef for Our Time, Yom Kippur 5776

Unetanneh Tokef Kedhushat Hay’om Ki Hu Naro V’eayom. Let us proclaim the power of this day for it is awesome and full of dread. On Rosh Ha’Shana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall see ripe age and who shall not? Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Wwho shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled?

The lament of Rabbi Amnon of Maynence sounds like it was ripped from today’s headlines. With the worst world-wide refugee crisis since WWII we are forced to ask:

Who shall live and who shall die?

Who by drowning at sea; and who by smothering in the back of a truck.

Who by lack of food and who by lack of water?

Who from exposure; and who from disease?

Who by bullets, and who by bombing;

Who by complicity and who by complacency?

Who by carelessness and who by cruelty?

Who by fear of the stranger; and who for political convenience?

Who by neglect; and who by narrow mindedness?

As today’s Torah reading for Yom Kippur reminds us, Etem Nitzavim Hayom, we stand today with a serious choice before us. The task is imposing, but not impossible; daunting, but within our reach; overwhelming, but attainable, if we commit ourselves to it. That is the real question before us today. Are we going to give the crisis the level of commitment it deserves or will we merely offer up a facile response far short of what we are capable of? Will we simply talk a good game or will we set realistic goals followed up by specific actions?

We have a narrow window of opportunity to make a tremendous difference. Time is not on our side, and, more importantly, it’s not on time side of the refugees either. The only people benefitting from this situation are smugglers who exploit the helpless situation of the refugees every way they can. Doing too little too late plays directly into their greedy, blood stained hands. Failing to formulate a comprehensive response punishes the victims and rewards the victimizers.

It’s important in the midst of this crisis to make some serious distinctions. First and foremost, we must distinguish between what it is relevant to the situation and what isn’t. Let’s start what isn’t. The religion, race, and nation of origin of refugees is NOT the issue. No one chooses these things. They are not inherently a reflection of someone’s character, intentions or potential for good or ill. No one deserves a lower priority due to factors beyond our control. The argument that we have already taken too many people from nation A, can’t be sure of the political philosophy of people from nation B, and have created a set of bureaucratic hurdles making it legally onerous to help people from nation C is NOT morally acceptable. Human beings deserve compassion, because they are human beings. What IS relevant to this crisis is the danger and degradation that hundreds of thousands of people are forced to endure every day. What is relevant is the loss life that has taken place already. What is relevant is our capacity to provide refugees with safer escape routes, improve conditions in refugee centers, and take in more refugees.

Why is this a Jewish problem? It’s a Jewish problem because Torah forbids us from being indifferent to the pain of others, forbids us from standing idly by while others bleed, forbids us to ignore the plea of the widow and the orphan. It’s a Jewish problem because Torah commands us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the oppressed, pursue, justice and, more than any other commandment, it always commands us to welcome and protect the stranger, because we ourselves were strangers in Egypt. There is a Jewish imperative here, because we have known what it means to be stateless, homeless, powerless and helpless. We have long acknowledged that we Jews are a people of immigrants, as American is a nation of immigrants. Why do we have so much trouble acknowledging that we are also a people of refugees? Ya’akov Avinu, Jacob our Father, later to be known as Israel, was a refugee. Was it not the fear of vengeance and violence that sent him fleeing into the dessert with barely more than the shirt on his back? He didn’t flee Canaan because he planned to. He fled Cannan because he had to. Moshe Rabenu, Moses our Teacher was a refugee, wanted for killing an Egyptian task master in the defense of a slave. He didn’t flee Egypt because he planned to. He fled Egypt because he had to. The warrior and poet who eventually became King David ran to the Philistines of all people to escape the wrath and madness of his Israel’s ruler, King Saul. He didn’t flee from home because he planned to, he fled because he had to. If what defines a refugee is that, if you stay home, you’ll be killed then all these men meet the definition of a refugee. If what defines a refugee is that you’ll die of hunger or disease if you stay where you are, then Ruth and Naomi are refugees. If what defines a refugee is that someone’s political or religious views have resulted in threats of assassination from a nation’s rulers, than the Prophet Elijah was a refugee. If Biblical history isn’t enough to convince people, then perhaps the Jewish experience during the Middle Ages, or the first half of the twentieth century, will cast a less ancient light on the question of why a world-wide refugee crisis is a Jewish problem. Time and again, we Jews have found ourselves fleeing persecution, crossing borders without a clear destination or plan, only clutching to hope that our migration will save our lives and those of our family and people. We must recall our ancestors and have compassion for those who are now taking the same uncertain path as the generations before us, those who took the path that allows us to stand here today.

Why is this America’s problem? There is a practical and philosophical response to that question. The great American Nobel Peace Prize winner, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, preached that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” “It’s none of our business” is not an ethical response to a moral crisis. If the 20th century has taught us nothing else, it is that Europe’s problem today will become our problem tomorrow. We can either engage those problems with a vigorous response and substantial resources, or we can wait and hope that the wind changes and the situation will blow over. We’ve seen what happens when we pursue the second of those two strategies. Rather than being bystanders for the first few years of a crisis, perhaps we should try taking a more active role from the very beginning. We might just save ourselves, and everyone else, a whole lot of lives and suffering.

We cannot contain the problem. We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work. We have to engage the problem. Nothing could be more destabilizing and demoralizing to our enemies than our ability to demonstrate that any law abiding person in America can be economically successful, intensely observant of their faith, and politically free to speak their point of view.

One way or another this crisis will carry a great cost. We can invest heavily in a constructive outcome now or we can expend the same, if not more resources, in disaster relief after preventable damage has already been done, still having no promise for a better future. In his famous “Four Freedoms” speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said all human beings are entitled to “freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.” Irving Greenberg, a rabbi and theologian offers what can perhaps be considered as an addendum to the last of these freedoms, that of fear. “The lesson of Auschwitz” he argues, “is that no human being should lack a guaranteed place to flee.” If, as the great poet Emma Lazarus charged us, we can extend these freedoms to hundreds of thousands of people “yearning to breathe free”, shouldn’t we seize the opportunity to do so? If the Statue of Liberty is more than a statue, but rather, a work of art that stands for something; if Emma Lazarus’ poem is more than flowery words, but rather a moral promise that stands as a beacon, then isn’t it time we took a stand and remind the world what we stand for? We can either define a successful approach to the world wide refugee crisis now, or let history define our failure to do so later? As the opening words of today’s Torah reading declare: Etem Nitzavim Ha’yom. We stand this day with a choice. We can do the right thing or the wrong thing. There is no such moral status as nothing. Nothing is not even a choice.

Unetantokef Kedushat Ha’yom, Ke Hu Nora Ve’Eyom. Let us proclaim the power of this day for it is awesome and full of dread. On Rosh Ha’Shana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be. Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; Who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Yom Kippur is NOT over. The bad news about that is there are still a lot of hours of fasting ahead of us. The good news about that is the fate of millions of people is NOT sealed. The situation is not out of our hands. They are not beyond help. They are not doomed and neither are we. There are still things we can do. But Ne’ilah is approaching, and the window of opportunity is closing. Help us, O Source of Mercy, to make a difference while we still can. Kein Ye’he ratzon, May this be God’s will, and let us say, “Amen.”

Temple Adath Israel has committed to sponsoring a refugee family and we look forward to welcoming them and supporting them in their transition to Lexington, KY. 

How Our Congregation Can Help

Among the specific ways that our congregation can help in this great time of need is through co-sponsorship of a refugee family. Over the past several months, members of our Social Action Committee have had conversations with a representative from Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), one of two federally recognized non-profit resettlement agencies in Kentucky. We will co-sponsor one family, most likely from the war torn nation of Congo. We’d like support to raise funds, needed to provide job training, renting an apartment for the family, as well as other services required to assist the family. Specifically, our Board of Trustees will be considering the question of seeking your support in the following ways:

  1. Asking Religious School Committee to direct all tzedakah money that students bring to class toward the Refugee Crisis and by donating to KRM’s co-sponsorship of this family.
  2. Asking Brotherhood, Sisterhood, Generation TAI and other groups to organize a spaghetti dinner, pizza and/or BBQ night with all proceeds being directed to the Refugee Crisis and by donating to KRM’s co-sponsorship of this family.
  3. The leadership of TAI will be encouraging people to donate furniture and consumable household goods for the refugee family.
  4. Asking people to volunteer our time by providing the refugee family with assistance, including rides to appointments with physicians, support agencies, schools and gatherings at houses of worship.
  5. Asking you to help the refugee family with assistance, including learning English and meeting other challenges of transitioning to a new country/culture. We are blessed to have congregants with many gifts and talents in our midst, each of you knows if there are other ways you might share your insights or skills to help this family and we will look forward to hearing other suggestions from you about how we might assist them in their transition to our community.

Leonard Cohen’s Rendering of the Unetanneh Tokef Prayer:

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