Parashah Ponderings

Where is God while migrants suffer?

Parashat Vayeitzei Genesis 28:10-32:3

It has been heartrending to hear about the 2000 or more migrants in Belarus who are stuck at the border with Poland. Belarus is a Russian-aligned nation whose neighbor, Poland, is a member of the European Union. Most of these migrants come from the Middle East and Asia, apparently lured there by Belarus with the promise of receiving assistance to enter the European Union. Belarus is corralling the migrants toward the border and reportedly brutalizing them there. Meanwhile, Poland has built a fence of razor wire and is refusing to let the migrants in and both nations are rattling their sabers and mobilizing their militaries on either side of the border.

Things closer to home feel no less distressing. Nearly 800 migrants, 40% of whom are minors, live in one makeshift camp in Tijuana, hoping for legal passage into the U.S. At last count, roughly 1.7 million migrants, mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have been detained at the border . Under Title 42, most asylum seekers are being sent back to the border or to their home countries.

I do not have the solutions to these crises, nor am I going to pretend I know and understand all the facts and factors involved — from the causes of the crises to the barriers, physical and political, to reaching just conclusions. All I know is that there are thousands upon thousands of human beings all over the world who are seeking refuge from terror, criminality, and famine and no one is eager to give them safe harbor. Again, I don’t have the solutions, but I know these human beings deserve better than what the world’s leaders, including in our own country, are offering them. 

As a nation of immigrants, we as Americans and we as Jews, should be outraged! Adam and Eve were the first migrants, kicked out of Eden for a sin, a mistake or for their own gullibility, but God saw that they had the means to make a home outside Eden. They would have to work. They would suffer. But they would be agents of their own destiny, and with that, they would have their dignity.

Abraham leaves his homeland in response to a Divine call. He gets to his destination only to encounter famine and so keeps on moving. Abraham was a migrant.

Two generations later, Jacob would become a migrant. We see in this week’s Torah reading Jacob running for his life from his home in Beersheva to Haran. In Haran, he lives for 20 years as an indentured servant to his Laban, but ultimately outwits Laban and returns to Beersheva with his two wives and their very large families. 

What Adam and Eve, Abraham and Jacob all have in common is that they were never abandoned by God. God provided for Adam and Eve when they worked the soil and bore children. God gave Abraham a home in Canaan when he demonstrated his faithfulness. And Jacob encounters messengers of God enroute to Haran and then again enroute back to Beersheva, angels that promised Jacob security and gave him hope for a better future.

Where is God for the migrants in Belarus, Mexico and so many other places that don’t make the headlines? I am reminded of the famous saying of the early 19th century Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendl of Kotzk: God is where you let God in. I would add my own belief that God is where human beings behave and work in Godly ways. 

International relief organizations of all kinds are busy trying to get access to these migrants and provide for their daily needs. Journalists are risking their lives to bear witness to the migrants’ suffering and despair as well as their hope and perseverance. God is there in those migrant camps because extraordinary people make sure that God is there.

But the suffering continues because elected officials, autocrats, and bureaucrats, put nation and self over compassion and dignity. I know the world’s problems are not easily solved, but amassing troops on your borders, aiming guns not at the migrants but at the other nation, hardly signals a will to find a solution. There is no Godliness in hardened hearts. There is no Godliness in the conditions that allow migrants to wait out their days in squalor, not knowing if they will find refuge, be sent to their places of origins — where very often certain death awaits — or languish indefinitely in no-man’s land. At these hardened hearts — at this vacuum of compassion and lovingkindness among those who could bring an end to the suffering of migrant men, women, and children — we should be outraged.

On this Shabbat, when we read about our ancestors, who themselves were migrants, let us be mindful of and grateful for those angels, those divine messengers, who bring migrants hope and security. But let us also raise our voices so loudly that they shatter the outer crusts of those hardened hearts that fail to see the spark of the Divine in those human beings who await justice. Let us demand of the world’s leaders that they, too, let God in.

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