Thursday, April 18, 2019 -
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Seeking refuge

For an entire month a sense of preparation and getting closer to something significant has permeated the air. A chasidic tale describes The Days of Awe as a time when “the king is in the field.”

Rabbi Oren Duvdevani captures perfectly a subtle shift that takes place:

“I sat down in the courtyard to study. It was the time of day when the breeze intensifies from the surrounding mountains, the wind quickly crossing the fields of my village just beyond the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee]. Like always, today too the breeze was so warm. But suddenly, maybe for just one minute, perhaps it was even a half a minute, there was a hint of coldness, a nip . . . the air permeated with a shift in its scent, both a bitterness and vibrancy, like a bit of the tobacco of the nargila [hookah], something that ever so slightly brings a burn to the nose and the eye. In other words: that autumnal breeze. Like I said, it was fleeting, maybe 30 seconds. Yet it was crystal clear and it caused me to raise my eyes for a moment from the Gemara, and I said to myself: Elul!”

This year, accompanying the usual heightened awareness of introspection and thoughts of personal improvement have been the heartwrenching video footage and photos of the Yazidi and Syrian refugees fleeing persecution.

We all awoke one morning to that drowned little boy, facedown, lifeless. He was folded into a cozy pose; he could have almost been any kid just napping, needing a warm blanket to cover him until he woke up. Yet, this tiny child was washed up like some inanimate flotsam and jetsam on the shore of a beach. A toddler on a journey with his family in hopes of finding relief from war-torn Syria, ending in tragedy.

Because we were raised on the heels of the Holocaust, because we have grown up with stories of relatives, friends or just fellow Jews escaping with their lives, forging identities, jumping from trains, etc., the stories and especially the raw, painful photos that silently scream, leave us in shock yet also with an eerie all too familiar feeling.

A couple of years ago I met a Syrian stuck in Denver after coming to study at CU. He shared how his parents were among the “lucky” ones, stealthily managing to flee Syria to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their back, abandoning their beautiful home. And out of fear never saying goodbye to friends or family.

This guy had nowhere to go as his passport was Syrian, and he was obviously not going to return to Syria. His parents were now refugees frozen in Egypt, strangers in a new land, unable to bring their son to Egypt. He didn’t know when he would see his parents again.

I had thought of all those Arab states as one big lump of Arabs with an interconnectedness to each other, since they all hated Israel. But this guy opened my eyes. To his Syrian parents Egypt was a new land, a new culture, a place where they are strangers.

I shuddered at the details, which had echoes of Jews fleeing Europe.

Now, I understand that there is no comparison between the current refugee crisis and the Holocaust. I understand that these Syrian refugees have found asylum in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. There are no labor camps, let alone extermination camps. These refugees are not starving to death. I get that.

But just because it is not quite so bad as the Holocaust doesn’t mean it’s not a horrendous humanitarian crisis.

It is becoming the humanitarian crisis of our time, like Rwanda was at the end of last century.

Only this time, with social media being what it is, it is harder to ignore, harder to feel like it’s a distant happening on the other side of the world.

With the exposure to these gut-wrenching stories, to the tears and terror recorded on video plain for any of us to witness, it leaves my heart beating in pain.

There has been another, human side to this story, too — an Egyptian billionaire offering to buy a Greek island he would transform as a safe haven for these refugees. Or the CEO of Chobani yogurt pledging his help.

How can Israel do more to help? The geographic proximity of Syria and Israel raises the obvious question of taking in refugees. Israel has said no, though it has provided food and other aid to Syrian refugees. As painful a position it is for Israel not to take in Syrians, I do understand Israel’s position (not that Syrians would likely want to come to the demonized Israel, their enemy, anyway). But from a moral point of view, I struggle with this. Because in some way I think the proximity does put Israel in a position of higher responsibility.

We don’t have to go as far back as the Torah, where we learn that “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the L-rd . . . because they met you not with bread and water on the way, when you came out of Egypt . . .”  because within our generation we have fresher memories. Memories of our parents or our grandparents fleeing for their lives.

The Torah, though, gives us this important message about our moral obligations, and defines essential humanness as aiding refugees in need, with at the very least, bread and water.

That little boy Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on the beach, drowned at sea by a rickety boat. Why isn’t Israel’s Navy doing more to help these Syrians reach their new shores more safely? I understand that taking in these refugees is not an option. Many if not most of these refugees are probably innocent, but there is the real fear of a Trojan Horse with ISIS operatives and other terrorists infiltrating under the guise of refugees.

The countries that admit them do unfortunately need to contend with this genuine concern and reality. But turning the sea into a graveyard of innocent little children is unbearable. As a people we have branded in our memory the cold indifference of the world to the St. Louis and other ships carrying our people that were turned away, many of whom later met their fate in death camps. Please, get these families onto strong boats with security in helping them reach new shores.

One of our central values is a conscious, collective remembering (every Shabbat!) that “we” were once the stranger. In Judaism, there is Me, in counterpoint to The Stranger. Different destinies for different people. The settled person and the fleeing person — the disoriented, the displaced, in crisis.

There are ways to help, making a tangible difference in helping these Syrian refugees without taking Syrians into Israel. And certainly, quietly, these last couple of years, while much of the world turned a blind eye, Israel has been doing her share at the border with medical help and more.

However, when it comes to the Druze Syrians, Israel should be doing even more. Or perhaps Israel can focus on Druze Syrians. But something!

For a month now Rosh Hashanah has loomed as the time we have been working toward within the intimacy of our Jewish service and Jewish faith.

But Rosh Hashanah is not restricted just to the Jewish people. It is universal, the time we pay attention to the creation of the entire world, and the time when G-d pays closer attention to the fate and destiny of not just our people, but of the entire world.

As the haunting liturgy states in the Zichronot section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer:

“You remember the deeds done in the universe and You recall all the creatures fashioned since the earliest of times . . . not a single creature is hidden from You . . . every spirit and soul is recalled . . . ”

Regarding countries, it is determined on Rosh Hashanah which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for abundance. And regarding all creatures, it is said which are remembered for life or death. “Who is not recalled on this day? For when the remembrance of everything fashioned comes before You . . .”

We will all be praying for life. For a year that, for all its ebb and flow of life’s rhythms, should be a year with more peaks than valleys, a year where we can play a role in helping each other within our communities, to be lifted from valleys to illuminated places.

And so it goes for the world of which Rosh Hashanah marks its creation.

May this year see the lifting of humanity to ever more responsibility for one another.

These Days of Awe began with sniffing out Elul in the air, then they are intensified with the meditative cadence and melodies of the Selichot. But with the commencement of Tishrei, the emotional and spiritual work crescendoes with the turning colors of nature.

I wish each and every one of you, my dear readers whom I cherish, a very sweet New Year. May you, your families and friends, all those whom you love, and all of Beit Yisrael, be inscribed in the book of life and blessing.

Shana Tova!

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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