Hukkat - 5778
This month, America’s citizens and the broader world community witnessed, in our own country, the commission, by our own government, of an almost unspeakable injustice. The Department of Homeland Security, acting under the direct orders of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and with the approval of President Donald Trump, implemented a policy of “zero tolerance” towards “illegal” border crossing, leading to the arrest of undocumented arrivals, including people seeking asylum, and the forcible separation of thousands of minor children from their parents.
The scenes of children – even nursing infants –ripped from their parent’s arms and sent into holding facilities or foster care – many, we now realize, without the documentation that will be necessary to ascertain their whereabouts or reunite them with their families of origin – are truly horrific and reminiscent of some of the most gruesome human rights violations of the past century. But the travesty we are witnessing is far more serious than simply “bad optics,” as the political pundits might brand it. The administration’s attempts to effect deterrence of future border crossings by inflicting hardship and harm on the children and families caught in their crosshairs embodies a miscarriage of justice that is, quite literally, Biblical in scope and character.
We need look no further than this week’s Torah portion for its parallel. In Parashat Hukat, which we will be reading on Shabbat morning, we learn of the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister. The death of a figure of her stature – Miriam was a prophetess and popular leader second only to Moses in stature – would have dealt a terrible blow to the Jewish community under any conditions. But as the text relates and our Sages expound, the impact of her passing was intensified by the influence she exerted not only in this world but the heavenly sphere as well. Miriam’s voice, her song, were the cues that called forth God’s compassion in moments in which the Divine anger flared against the Israelites.
With Miriam’s death, we are told, the well of (drinkable) water that had accompanied the wanderers through the desert suddenly dried up and the Children of Israel were faced with the prospect of disastrous famine. It was only when the voices of the people themselves rose up in mourning that God’s compassion was revived and the balance between Divine justice and compassion was restored.
In our own day, in our own society, we are witnessing an almost unprecedented tipping of the balance between “justice” (din) – enforcement of the law, with zero tolerance for deviation - and “compassion” (rachamim). While it is the prerogative of every society to regulate the passage of people across its borders, it is also the obligation of every government to administer its laws, including its statutes of immigration, in a manner that is just, humane and ethically defensible. Making targets of the most vulnerable of individuals, persons who in many instances are fleeing life-threatening circumstances in their countries of origin and who have already endured unimaginable hardships as they seek safety and sanctuary in our country, falls well below even the lowest moral bar.
As your rabbi, I urge you to stand with the twenty-six national Jewish organizations (including the Conservation Movement) that have joined with HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) to deplore the administration’s actions, call for the immediate and unambiguous repeal of all policies contributing to family separation, and bring about the reunification of families already so-divided.
Attached to this message are a series of concrete recommendations developed by the Reform Action Center in Washington, DC, which has been at the forefront of the Jewish community’s grassroots response to this crisis.