The biblical commentator Rashi often observed that certain passages in the Torah scream out, “Darsheini — interpret me.” In Parashat Mishpatim, the words of Exodus 22:20-22 surely demand such exposition. In these verses, God calls out to the Israelites and tells them, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as they cry out to Me.” God, the Torah states, heeds the pain of the stranger, the dispossessed and the weak among the nations, no less than God paid notice to the Jewish people when we groaned under the servitude of Egyptian bondage [Ex. 2:23-25].
These verses direct Jews to remember that we were “strangers in Egypt,” and that empathy and support for those who are weak and in distress are demanded of us as Jews. Mishpatim calls upon us to heed the anguish of the downtrodden. Rabbi Lee Bycel has heard these words in our parashah with a special urgency and has written a book, “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience, and Hope in Their Own Words” (Rutgers University Press, 2019), that takes the directive of Rashi to heart. His book constitutes a needed explication of what it means to heed the cry of the stranger today. His concerns for the “stranger” leap from the pages of Exodus and speak with great power to us as American Jews as our community struggles to respond to the crisis of immigration and the plight of refugees who seek asylum within our borders.
Currently a professor at the University of San Francisco and formerly dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, as well as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience from 2014-2019, Bycel heeds the directive in Mishpatim by interviewing 11 refugees who have immigrated to the U.S. from all over the world. Each speaks directly to the reader of his or her life in their own words.
Bycel prefaces the refugees’ remarks by explaining the plight they faced in their native lands prior to coming here. Each refugee, whether from Eritrea or Poland, the South Sudan or Syria, El Salvador or Vietnam, Cambodia or Afghanistan, Guatemala, Iraq or the Congo, whether female or male, whether gentile or Jew, then recounts the story of his or her life. Their tales are both heart-rending and inspirational, as they describe the suffering and oppression that caused them to leave their homelands and the struggles they encountered as they adjusted to their new lives.
Bycel points out that these journeys were not undertaken lightly. In his introduction, he explains the anguish and fear that motivated these refugees to leave their homes. He cites the words of Somali refugee Warsan Shire, who painfully observes, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Bycel then underscores the pain such dislocation elicits by quoting Hannah Arendt, who captured the immense losses migrants feel as she tells of her own sense of despondence brought on by her flight from Nazi German and entry into America. As Arendt wrote, “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupations, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expressions of feelings.”
Jewish tradition teaches, “Words that come from the heart, enter the heart of the listener.” Only the most callous soul would not be moved by the decency these refugees to our nation display. In allowing us to hear “the cry of the heart” uttered by each refugee in this book, Bycel gives these men and women a name and a face. They are no longer part of an anonymous mass, and their words enter the deepest recesses of our own souls. No longer “The Other,” we see their lives as our own.
Indeed, as I read of the unending persecutions these people encountered as they sought refuge in America, I thought constantly of all four of my grandparents. I heard my grandmother speaking to me of how her brother was slaughtered before her eyes by Cossacks during a pogrom on Good Friday. I heard my grandfather telling me how he deafened himself by poking a knitting needle into his ear, thereby avoiding a lifetime of intolerable service as a Jew in the czar’s army. And as I read of how these recent immigrant refugees to our country worked unceasingly and tirelessly with no knowledge of English to survive and support both themselves and their loved ones as they strove for decent lives in America, I thought again of all four of my grandparents — how they, like the men and women in this book, came to these shores with no funds, no knowledge of English and no sense of American culture. Yet they, like the women and men in this book, succeeded through unwavering courage and determination to create businesses that allowed for the support of their children and that permitted my cousins and me — their grandchildren — to enjoy the blessings of this country. “Refugees in America” has given these immigrants a name and a face. In so doing, it reminds us of the common humanity that marks and unites us all as persons and calls upon us to act on their behalf. For the refugee is no longer “Other.”
The late chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, once wrote, “The Jewish people possesses an obligation to conduct itself towards those who are strangers in its midst with integrity and fairness. In so doing, we will sanctify the Name of Heaven and the name of Israel in the world.” “Refugees in America” serves as a response to Rabbi Halevi’s directive. It constitutes a Kiddush Hashem — a sanctification of the Divine Name — that illuminates the meaning of Mishpatim and the acts such meaning requires towards the “strangers” at our borders and within our midst and today.
Rabbi David Ellenson is chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and professor emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.