November 28, 2015 | 16 Kislev 5776
It is difficult to see the humanity in people we perceive as our enemies.
Syria has long been the enemy of Israel and, as a result, we consider its people to be our enemies, too.
That is why our visit with Riva Silverman of HIAS here on Shabbat morning four weeks ago felt a bit dissonant.
Riva asked us to contact President Obama and urge the United States to resettle 100,000 of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.
More than a few of us probably wondered why we would encourage our government to welcome such large numbers of citizens of a country still technically at war with Israel.
Then, not long after the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris we learned a terribly disturbing fact – apparently one of the perpetrators had entered Europe with other Syrian refugees.
Fear in the homeland grew!
It could happen here, too, couldn’t it?!
According to recent polls, more than 80% of all Americans believe it will happen here…it is only a matter of time, they think, until a significant terrorist attack occurs in the United States.
Fear continues to grow … and so does anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric.
Governors, presidential candidates …for the past two weeks we have heard them offer messages ofrejection.
The voices of experts who calmly explain the refugee vetting process hardly gain anyone’s attention.
No, it’s sound bites that capture attention.
Stop Syrian refugees from entering the United States!
Send them back!
Those sentiments sound eerily familiar in light of our people’s experience.
No, Syria today is not Germany in the 1930’s, but there is a common thread – flight from one’s homeland born of mortal fear.
Jews who sought to flee Germany knew their lives were imperiled.
Today millions of Syrians fear for their lives and want to protect their children.
They seek safety elsewhere.
Back in 1938, representatives of Allied countries met to determine what to do with the growing number of Jewish refugees.
When the Canadian representative was asked how many Jews Canada would accept, do you know what he said?
“One would be too many.”
At that time, inflamed rhetoric was matched by heartless action.
You know the story of the St. Louis – first to Cuba; then to the United States.
Our country would not take in Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
We sent them right back to him.
Syria is not Nazi Germany.
And yet, 200,000 civilians have died in Syria during the last four years of civil war… some of them as a result of President Bashar el Assad’s sarin gas.
As the Syrian refugee crisis mounts, despite understandable concerns about terrorists who might enter the United States, we as individual Jews and as a Jewish community, must struggle with our fears.
We must decide – When it comes to responding to the potential influx of Syrian refugees to what should we give expression – our fears or our compassion?
We must confront ourselves and answer these questions: “Who are we?” “What do we stand for?”
The paradigm for this confrontation and, I believe our answers, flow from our parasha today.
You know the story.
Jacob, now a wealthy man, is returning with his family to the land of Israel.
Yet he knows that Esau is coming toward him, likely to seek revenge for the wrongs Jacob has done him.
Jacob splits up his family so that no single attack can harm all of them.
With everyone at least temporarily safely on the other side of the Yabbok River, Jacob sets off to cross the river.
But he does not get very far.
A being engages him.
All night long the two of them wrestle.
Finally, as dawn breaks, Jacob obtains a blessing and a new name from his adversary, Yisrael – a God struggler.
Who was that adversary? Our commentators offer different options.
But one clear perspective is that Jacob struggled with himself.
Who was he going to be?
The manipulative trickster he had been up to that point in his life or one who confronts what he needs to face?
What was his true identity, and how would he give expression to it?
Jacob’s personal struggle is our collective Jewish struggle today.
But unlike Jacob, our struggle is not about self-identity and direction.
It is about our values and our expression of them.
We can listen to voices of fear – those we hear on television and may feel inside ourselves – and give into them.
We can look at Syrian refugees and see the word “terrorist” written on each of their faces…
We can “swim along with the rising tide” of rejection ….
We can, as our tradition often urges us to do, go against the tide.
We can, as the Torah implores us countless times, care for the “stranger” because we were once strangers in a foreign land where they came to hate us.
Simply put, we can ask ourselves, “How shall we view this Syrian refugee crisis through the prism of our Jewish tradition?”
Anne Roiphe, the writer, put it rather succinctly this week in a column that appeared in the Forward.
“We should not let terrorists estrange us from ourselves.”
Once upon a time, our patriarch Jacob was nearly consumed by fear.
He feared the wrath of his brother, Esau.
And he feared what he had become – a manipulative cheater.
Those fears and their sources had estranged Jacob from his better self, his true self.
So he confronted them…he wrestled with them and was successful.
Today we “stand at the river.”
We can follow Jacob’s example.
We can take hold of a tradition that urges compassion and caring for the stranger, even one who understandably makes us uncomfortable.
Or we can do otherwise.
We can allow other factors to drive our views.
Jacob’s struggle was difficult.
But when the encounter with Esau was over and the two men had gone their separate ways, the Torah tells us…
“Vayahvoh Ya’akov shalem ir Shechem” (Gen 33:18)
“Jacob arrived ‘shalem’ – safe – in the city of Shechem.”
In what sense was he now safe?
Of course, Esau was no longer a threat to him.
But “shalem” or “shelaymoot” implies something deeper that physical well – being.
The commentator Sefat Emet said that Jacob was now at peace with himself.
He had a sense of integrity he had not previously possessed.
As we confront the complex issue of Syrian refugees potentially entering the United States in large numbers, may we do so in a way that reflects the wisdom and compassion of our tradition.
Then I pray, we, like Jacob, will be “shalem.”