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Ki Tavo Sermon

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo.  We are nearing the end of the Torah.  Moses is addressing the people before they cross over into the land of Israel.  He instructs them that when they enter the land they are commanded to offer thanks.  They are to bring an offering and make a proclamation.  It begins with these words: “My father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)   This is followed by a brief encapsulation of Jewish history.

It is fascinating that as soon as the people arrive in their new home they are to publicly declare their immigrant roots.  They are to say we were once wanderers.

In fact the origins of the term Hebrew suggests this wandering.  Ivri means to cross over.  Abraham was the first to be called this because he crossed over into the land of Canaan, later to be called the land of Israel.  Our name suggests our identity.  We are wanderers; we are forever immigrants.  As we become more and more comfortable and at home in our cities, towns and countries we tend to forget this history and our origins.  Perhaps this is the very purpose of the prescribed ritual.  This is why these words became part of the traditional seder.  At these meals we declare, “Our father was a wandering Aramean…”

All of this makes me think about our current discussions about immigration.  These debates tend to look at immigrants as a threat rather than the way they might sustain our future.  We ask, “How much of a threat will these new people be to our accustomed ways and especially our livelihoods?”  We tend to look at what we might lose.  There will be more people to divide up an ever-shrinking pie.  This is how the debate appears.  It is not about what we might gain, but about what we might lose.  I believe instead that new people and their new ideas is how we will march into the future and better that future.

I am not so naïve as to suggest that any country can afford to welcome every person who wants to immigrate.  There are limits to our resources.  Israel, for example, is now facing a similar issue.  After decades of holding up the virtues of immigration and most especially Jewish immigration, Israel has now become a desired destination for African refugees.  In fact about 20 such refugees are now stuck outside of Israel at its new border fence with the Sinai.  They have trekked through the deserts to make their way to a promised land.  The irony is almost too bitter to utter.  Only yesterday Israel allowed three of these wanderers into its borders, a woman and two children.  They have supplied the migrants with food and water but have not allowed more in.  For Israel as well there are limits to this immigration.

One of my teachers, Tal Becker, recently asked how can we respond to this growing crisis with Jewish values?  The Torah teaches us that we must love the stranger.  We cannot turn all away; we also cannot welcome all in.  Tal Becker argues that Israel must figure out how many it has the resources to welcome and then increase that number by 10,000.  His contention is that we must go beyond what we think we can afford.  Israel is built on Jewish values and these in addition to our Jewish history outweigh the practical.  We do not discount the practical.  But we go beyond it; that is what our values dictate.

I do not understand why in this country we are not especially more open to the immigration of those who study here at our universities.  Every person who gets a graduate degree here should be given immediate citizenship; new people and new ideas will only better our future.  That is my faith in immigration. 

It left a deep impression on me at the service when we thanked the church.  Then Reverend Ramirez gave a tearful tribute to his parents who immigrated to this country with only a dream of a better future for their children.  They worked several jobs so that their children might succeed.  That is this nation at its best.  I see this as well every time my son takes to the field on Huntington’s soccer team.  There is Ari, the goalie, often shouting directions in Spanish to his defenders.  It is quite the mixture of people and cultures on that field.  That too is this nation at its best.

As everyone knows Emma Lazarus, the great American Jewish poet, penned the words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  She there refers to the statue as the “Mother of Exiles” and she concludes:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
That is the spirit that must animate this great country.  It is the values written there and the values found in our Torah portion.  It is not immigration without limits, but most certainly more than we imagine we can welcome. We shut the door to strangers not only to their detriment but to ours as well. I will always believe in immigration and its power to transform both the immigrant and the nation. 

We are all wanderers—each and every one of us.  We are all immigrants—each and every one of us.  And that is the offering we must carry with us each and every day.