I just returned from a few days of study and conversation with a group of rabbis and scholars. We immersed ourselves in texts and conversations about the challenges of interfaith relations. We studied sources related to our obligations and relationships to others, and the concept of closeness. We also spoke about the current state of Jewish Muslim dialogue. And we discussed the call of the refugees suffering in our world. We looked at the refugee crisis in South Tel Aviv and how the Hartman Institute has committed to help.
When thinking about our role in the larger world and our responsibilities to others who struggle – be it for justice and freedom, or shelter and food – we take inspiration from the leadership that Abraham Joshua Heschel played in this country in the fight for civil rights. Heschel’s daughter, Professor Suzannah Heschel, was at the gathering and spent time reminiscing about her father and his relationship with Dr. King. She referred to a quote written in a telegram to President John F. Kennedy. And it was in a call to leadership – especially religious leadership – for “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” In light of the lack of full civil rights to African Americans, Heschel called for a declaration of a moral emergency!
Today there are many plagues in our world, but none may be greater than the suffering of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees. We are in a unique position to help these men, women, and children who are suffering and in need of shelter and food. This problem will get larger. And although we may see ourselves as being an ocean away, we cannot turn our eyes, our hearts and our hands from it.
One immediate response to the refugee problem is what the Shalom Hartman Institute is doing. They are creating daycare, and early childhood education for the youngest of refugees from Eritrea and the Sudan who are found in the streets, and in squalor, in Tel Aviv. We can help. And by helping, we are bearing witness to the moral call of a Jewish nation. Please go online to the Shalom Hartman Institute’s website to see where you can donate or you can send a check to B’nai Torah c/o the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund. Make sure you note that it is for this need.
Additionally, I will be entering a conversation next week with local Syrian leaders about the Syrian refugee problem and America’s response. This is the largest refugee crisis that the world has faced since WWII. I will report to you on that meeting.
Recently, a rabbinic leader in this country paraphrased Heschel and spoke about “audacious hospitality” and welcoming others as a way not only to save lives, but also to transform the lives of those who help. There is a need to see the human dimension of children who are hungry and parents who are desperate to find safety. As a people, we know too well what it meant to be forgotten and neglected in this world. Today, with all of our own threats and struggles, we find ourselves in a different place. We can be amongst those who reach out to others in need.
The values behind all of this can be found in our Torah. And no better place than this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Chayei Sarah explores this principle; bringing to light both questions and answers about our current worldly crisis. In the portion, after Sarah’s death, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son, Yitzhak. As Eliezer states: “The girl to whom I say, ‘Tip your pitcher and let me drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink; and let me water your camels, too’ – let her be the one You designate for Your servant Isaac; that is how I shall know that You have done a kindness for my master.” At the well in Abraham’s native land, he encounters Rivka, who not only offers him water, but takes on the task of giving drink to his camels as well. In doing this, Rivka displays audacious hospitality towards Eliezer – she supplies not only what he requests, but what she knows he needs. Rivka acts on a pure sense of chesed (kindness) when she chooses to see the human rather than the stranger, in Eliezer.
That’s the biggest religious challenge. I personally believe that this is what represents the revolution that was created by Abraham in the ancient world. He was chosen by God because he was from the other side (an Ivri). We have a history of being the other. And our “otherness” was meant to teach us and the world. At the end of the day, we need to transcend narrow self interest to see the human dimension in every one of God’s creations.
We must try to keep our eyes open and respond to what we see in the human condition. That is “spiritual audacity and moral grandeur”…
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt