Vayetzei - Living Between Two Worlds - Syrian Refugees and Us©

Vayetzei - Living Between Two Worlds - Syrian Refugees and Us©
Rabbi David Baum - 5776/2015

Last week, I did not here the news about the terrorist attacks in France until I arrived to shul on Friday evening so I did not have the opportunity to go on social media until Shabbat. When I logged on to Facebook and Twitter, I was amazed with how so many of my friends knew exactly how to handle the situation of the Syrian refugees which became a bi-product of the attacks.

To those who had your minds made up right away...I truly envy you.

It took me time to understand my perspective, to understand a Jewish perspective – I was stuck between my heart, seeing the suffering of the refugees, and my head, which is aware of the potential dangers of the refugees.

We had a shocking Shabbat that is becoming all too familiar. Another terrorist attack in Paris, this time, much deadlier than the last. I remember living after 9/11, going on the city bus in Gainesville the day of 9/11, and actually feeling fear. I remember what it was like to live in Israel during the 2nd Intifada – the fear I felt walking around, dodging buses and cafes. It gets you questioning everything in your life, questioning everyone.

In our parashah this week, Vayetzei, we see a Jacob who is running away from his family, scared for his life. In some ways, he was the first refugee of our forefathers – a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” if he returned, which is the definition of a refugee according to our government. As he is escaping Canaan for Haran, he comes to a certain place, actually it’s called, BaMakom, literally a place, and he sleeps there for the night. He’s in no where’s land, between a world of terror, where he knew the players, and an unknown world ahead of him, where he knew no one.

It’s in this place where two worlds suddenly appear in front of him: the world as it is, and the world as it should be. The world as it is dark and lonely, full of fear – that’s the world that he falls asleep in; but the world as it should be, in the very same place, a world of angels, of a comforting, is where he wakes up.

Genesis 28:12:

וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹ–קים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

12 He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

And suddenly, Jacob realizes that he is not alone, in fact, God is standing there next to him, and actually talks to him. He wakes up and proclaims how great and awesome this place is, that God was there and he didn't even know it.
Immediately after this incident, the Torah tells us:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב רַגְלָ֑יו וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ אַ֥רְצָה בְנֵי־קֶֽדֶם׃

And Jacob lifted his feet and came to the land of the Easterners...

Literally, Jacob lifts his feet, a phrase that appears no where else in the Bible – The Jewish Publication Society commentary, based on a collection of classical commentators, give us three possibilities for this phrase:

  1. The going was now easier
  2. He directed his feet, that is, he went with resolve and confidence,
  3. He had to force himself to leave the site of this holy revelation

Jacob realizes that the world as it should be, this world of angels going up and down, where God is literally next to him blessing him, is fleeting – it's not something that can exist forever, if ever, in this world. But, at the same time, the world of darkness and loneliness, the world as it was to him, is also not something that can last forever. His task is to live in tension between these two worlds, and when he does this, he lives with purpose – the world as it is can be a stepping stone to the world as it should be. He lifts up his feet, forcing himself to leave the world as it should be because he knows he has to enter back into the world as it is, a world of periodic darkness, and yes, fear.

We are also in this place, between seemingly two choices: the world as it is, and the world as it should be.

Our task is to bridge the gap between to the two worlds.

First, we must open our hearts and empathize, we must be able to see ourselves in the story of others. The story of the Syrian refugees should hit close to home for us, not just because we are Jews, but because we are Americans. Every one of our ancestors came here by boat, or recently, by plane. They were all looking for a better life – some had choices of where they could go, others didn’t.

My grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived in Communist Poland after they were liberated from Auschwitz. They went home, and lived life as they did before the war, except for one main thing – they hid their Judaism. My grandfather became a factory foreman in a coat factor, but in order to make extra money, he tailored these coats, which were one size fits all, in his apartment to passersby. In Communist Poland, this was illegal. He was arrested several times, and his family wondered after every stint in jail: would he come back next time? But it wasn't just his tailoring, but the family's religion. For years they had to hide their Judaism. My mother, aunt and uncle only knew they were Jewish because my grandmother took them out of class when the priest would teach the class Catholicism. In the early 1960’s, my grandfather saw his chance for freedom – it was only a matter of time until the next time he got arrested, that he wouldn’t come home; or if someone found out they were Jewish who could hurt them. They left Poland for America, on a boat, after a deal was struck between America and Poland, they told me they traded wheat for skilled workers. Here was the catch: they could only take $5 per person and they had to fit all of their possessions in a large wicker basket.

My story isn’t that unique – I’m sure all of you have relatives with similar stories. Think about the story of Jacob, Rachel, Leah and their children as they flee Lavan, gathering what they can – Rachel taking Laban’s gods, a reminder of a home she will never return.

And this story is playing itself out here in Florida with Syrian refugees. Rather than focus on the estimated 10,000 refugees from Syria that we are debating about now, I want to focus on the mother of one family, Amal Saleh, whose family recently settled in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida from Syria. The family was screened before their arrival in Istanbul, Turkey. After the family home in Aleppo was destroyed — one they had bought just a few weeks before — they paid about $200 each for a smuggler to take them to the Turkish border. Her husband, who suffered multiple strokes after Syria's civil war erupted, was unable to walk by that point. After waiting for a Turkish police patrol to move past, the family rushed across the border, a friend carrying her husband on his back.

They reached a small city and bought bus tickets to Istanbul, where they spent the next 21 months trying to find a home. They were let into the U.S. after six interviews as a family and individually where the government officials knew strange specific information about their lives in Syria; after fingerprint checks, and more.

Now, they live in Florida, and they are scared of Americans because of the rhetoric her family has heard in recent days, she said: "The same way that Americans are afraid of us, now we are afraid of them. She continued, “I would tell them that we, the Syrian people, are very peaceful. These are children, women and elderly who have no blame for what's happening. We have been vetted very thoroughly. We deserve to live."

Properly vetting these refugees is vital, it's where we access our heads, it's where we stand with one foot in the world as it is, and the heart calls out to us, God calls out to us, to climb the ladder to the world as it should be.

Before Jacob grows into the Jacob we know, he was a scared boy fleeing his home land. When he comes the well in Haran, again knowing no one, he says, “My brothers, where are you from?”

He calls them, “my brothers,” as a way of establishing commonality—a 14th century Turkish commentator Moshe Al Sheikh says this means, “You are people of equal value to me.” Then he asks where they are from—again to establish connection.

It shows me what most refugees want – not our jobs, not to terrorize us, but a new beginning, to be our brothers and sisters, to establish a common connection – to be equals.

It's a scary time – it's times like these when we are stuck in the world as it is, a dark world, a lonely and fearful world – but we have to remember that refugees are also living in the same world. The question is, how can we move to the world as it should be? We have to bridge the gap between to the two worlds. We have to use our heads, but at the same time, never close our hearts.


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