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If you could only bring one thing with you, what would it be? Refugee Shabbat - Beshalach 2023

Shabbat Shirah - Beshalach 2023

HIAS/Refugee Shabbat

Rabbi David Baum

Let’s say you were a slave, and you were being freed from Egypt, and you could only bring one thing with you, what would it be?

21st-century rules apply, but if you bring a cell phone, you better make sure someone has a solar charger! No need to mention your family, they will be there with you.

Now imagine if you actually had to make this decision - not thousands of years ago, but today.

My parents are from Eastern Europe, born after the war. My father was born in a displaced person camp, my mother, in a town in Poland.

Fortunately, my uncle Harry (doesn’t everyone have an uncle Harry) was old enough when they left Poland to remember what life was like in the old country, especially the challenges they faced on a daily basis. He once told me the story of how they came here to American in the 1960’s from Poland.

After my grandparents were liberated from Auschwitz, they went back to the familiar - the only language they knew, the only country they knew, the only people they knew - Poland. They moved to a different city together, Włocławek, and rebuilt their lives, but hid their Jewish past. Following the war, Poland became a Communist country as it was. My grandfather was a factory foreman in a coat factory where they made one type of coat for everyone. He made money on the side by tailoring these coats for customers in his apartment, which was illegal. He was almost put in jail on several occasions for this crime, and the question they wondered was, would there come a time when he wouldn’t come home? Finally, in 1960, they had their chance to leave Communist Poland and come to America. And they came - but there were some strict conditions from the Polish government - each person was only allowed to bring the equivalent of $5 in currency, and they had to place all their belongings in one wicker basket.

This wicker basket became their ‘teiva’ - their ark. Like Noah and Moses before them - it was not only items that were placed in this basket - but the hopes and dreams for a brighter future for their family.

He told me what it was like to finally make it here after that long boat ride, welcomed by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in this new land, with food, some more money in their pockets, and a train ticket to their final destination.

That’s my story - it’s a story I was reminded of on a weekly if not daily basis as a child. I can see the wicker basket in my mind - I actually saw some of the items that went in the basket, and the memories and hopes that were included with them.

Our parashah, BeShalach, is very special in our tradition - it is a rare experiential Torah reading when we rise during the reading like our ancestors, and when we answer the Torah reader - we are anything but passive during this retelling of the story.

The ritual itself is a reminder of how we hold our past with us, and bring it with us wherever we go.

There were moments when Bnai Israel likely forgot their past and the person who brought them to Egypt.

In last week’s parashah, just a couple of verses before the beginning of our reading today, we read the following:

וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת־עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף עִמּוֹ כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם׃

And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”

(Exodus 13:19)

Here we see Moshe fulfills a promise that Joseph swore to his descendants 400 years before this point. Think about this - They just saw ten plagues, and Pharaoh lets them go. They know that he could change his mind at any moment, so yes, they need to be prepared with arms, and yes, they need to prepare for life in the wilderness, they will need gold, but what does Moses do at this pivotal moment? He collects the bones of Joseph. Why? Why do this when it could put everyone’s life at risk?

Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 13:19 says the following:

(Exodus 13:19) "And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him": This apprises us of the wisdom and saintliness of Moses. All of Israel were occupying themselves with the spoils (of Egypt), and Moses was occupying himself with the mitzvah of the bones of Joseph. Of him it is written (Mishlei 10:8) "The wise of heart will take mitzvoth." And how did Moses know where Joseph was buried? It was said: Serach the daughter of Asher was left of that generation, and she showed Moses the grave of Joseph, saying to him: In that spot did they place him.

Serach bat Asher was the daughter of Asher, Asher the son of Jacob, she was the only person who survived from that generation; she convinces Jacob that Joseph is actually still alive which keeps him hopeful for all those years; 400 years later, when Moses comes to Pharaoh's court, she is the person who identifies him as the true Messiah of Israelites which led the people to trust in Moses; she was the only one who knew where Joseph was buried and finds him for Moses so the people could leave the land quickly, and the tradition goes on to say that she actually never dies - she lives for the 40 years in the Wilderness, she enters the Promised Land, and she enters Gan Eden alive. The character of Serah, who accompanies the Israelites to Egypt and enters the land of Canaan with them, embodies the history of the people of Israel.

Serach Bat Asher is the voice of our past, our Uncle Harry’s if you will, the ones who remind us that we were once slaves, and now we are free.

As Jews living in America, many of us for generations, it may be easy to look back at our history of coming to America, but more difficult to truly feel what it must have been like. The fear they held with them that an attacking army could gain up to them at any moment, the daily fear that they lived with.

Thankfully, Jews have come a long way in the last 70 years, but Jews in different countries have been refugees, from Jews in Arab lands, to the Jews of Ethiopia, to the Jews of Ukraine today. For the first time, we have a place, a safe haven, but this place of safety could lead us to a sense of forgetting the plight of refugees from other peoples and places.

HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, acknowledges that most refugees aren’t Jewish, but they still see “welcoming the stranger” as a Jewish imperative. Their mission remains to provide vital services to refugees and asylum seekers around the world and advocate for their fundamental rights so they can rebuild their lives. As HIAS likes to say, “We used to help refugees because they were Jewish; now we help refugees because we are Jewish.”

When we think back to our past, and how many of our ancestors were refugees, we can see the potential of giving a safe haven for oppressed peoples. We can look at refugees with renewed eyes. HIAS shared the following about refugees today:

  • Refugees are the most vetted individuals entering the United States and undergo complex security checks run by the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other U.S. intelligence agencies. It can take between 18-24 months, and sometimes longer, from the time a refugee is referred to the USRAP to the time of arrival.

  • National security experts have repeatedly said that the refugee resettlement program advances our national security interests, is an important foreign policy tool, and contributes to keeping our troops safe around the world.

  • Once resettled, refugees not only contribute to their new communities economically, but also play an active role in civic engagement, participate in the labor force, maintain a strong devotion to education, purchase homes, and become U.S. citizens.

  • On average, 82 percent of refugees participate in the labor force, compared to the 62 percent national average. Refugees are twice as likely as native-born individuals to hold jobs in the service industry, and many industries like hospitality and meatpacking now rely heavily on refugee workers. Across the U.S., the low number of refugee arrivals is putting an unnecessary strain on businesses, especially so in rural areas.

  • In 2017, a study was released showing that over a span of 10 years, refugees contributed $63 billion more in taxes than what the U.S. had spent on their initial resettlement.

So we learn that opening our country to refugees give us moral and ethical wealth, but also, literally, tangible wealth and desperately needed revitalization.

I began by asking everyone to think about what they would have brought with them from Egypt. So what did our people bring with them? They brought their wealth, all they could fit in their small bags, they brought the bones of Joseph, they brought others with them, an Erev Rav, a mixture of oppressed peoples who saw a future with these freed slaves, but they also brought music with them. Miriam famously leads the people in song with timbrels and drums.

In a sense, they unearthed something that was lost - joy and freedom.

My blessing for us is that we too can bring the God-given gifts that were taken away from refugees back to them - joy and freedom. May we remember what it was like to be in their shoes, but more importantly, the potential in each refugee because they too can become us.

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