When Passover began, I asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” As it ends, I ask, “Why is this Torah column different from all other Torah columns?”
The answer begins with Elie Wiesel’s iconic story of Jews in a concentration camp unable to celebrate Simchat Torah for lack of a Torah scroll with which to dance. One man solves the problem by picking up a child and holding him the way he would a scroll. “This will be our Torah!” he announces.
We are not told what happened to that child, but we can guess. I have been thinking of him this Passover, especially while reviewing “Dayenu,” that celebration of all the things God did to save us, each one being dayenu (“enough”), but knowing that it really wasn’t enough, not for the concentration camp children like the one in the story. “Let my people go,” Moses said to Pharaoh, who didn’t. Neither did Hitler.
Until 1941, however, Hitler was more than willing to let Jews go but no one would take them. The Final Solution was really the Second Solution — undertaken when the first one, exporting Europe’s Jews, failed. On Aug. 1, 1942, our American government learned with certainty that Jewish genocide was in the works, and our State Department buried the memo. In 1943, Sweden offered to save 20,000 Jewish children, if America would help fund the cost of feeding them. We turned them down.
We were not the only ones. In 1945, a Canadian government official was asked how many Jews would be accepted as immigrants when the war ended. His infamous reply is legendary: “None is too many.”
These facts are representative of a thousand others, well known by now. Jews would become a public charge, people said; the economy couldn’t sustain them. Many of them were criminals. They would make us “vulnerable to enemies,” the State Department argued.
We Jews can properly disagree on a great many things, but the moral obligation to open our borders to the oppressed and helpless seekers of asylum is not one of them. Yet here we are, closing those borders and saying of others what was said about us: they will be a public charge, they are criminals, we’ll be vulnerable to terrorists.
Of course there are differences: the refugees on our southern border are not all fleeing state-sponsored genocide. Not all them are alike: some are more threatened than others. Orchestrating a legitimate admission procedure will be no easy matter. But even granting all that, Jews know (better than most) that we can and should be debating the best possible way to do the right thing. We should not be doing whatever we can to do nothing.
The Seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” becomes newly macabre when we remember that Wiesel’s Auschwitz testimony was entitled “Night.” For would-be immigrants, cruelly and needlessly sent back home to disaster, this night is not at all different from all other nights. When mounting darkness finally occludes all signs of hope, when it chokes off the very last chance of deliverance, night is just night.
The pathos of Wiesel’s “Torah-child” ought to be “enough” for us: Dayenu. But Wiesel gives us also another Auschwitz child, subjected to public hanging but too weightless for the noose to kill him right away. Instead, he dangles in the wind, as if awaiting salvation after all.
There are children on our borders dangling in the wind.
This Torah column differs from all other Torah columns because it takes this last day of Passover seriously enough to remember that as much as Pharaoh wouldn’t let us out, Amalek wouldn’t let us through, and when the Nazis were willing to let us leave, America wouldn’t let us in.
Surely we are a better America now. Let us not act so that history records us as another Amalek.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, is the author of “Yizkor: May God Remember — Memory and Memorializing in Judaism.”
Candles: 7:27 p.m. (Thu.); 7:28 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 13:17-15:26 (Fri.); Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 (Sat.); Numbers 28:19-25 (both)
Haftarah: II Samuel 22:1-51 (Fri.);
Isaiah 10:32-12:6 (Sat.)
Havdalah: 8:30 p.m.