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Rosh Hashanah 5776 – Day 1

As it happened a few weeks ago on the Shabbat after the horrible attacks in Israel, in the Gay Pride Parade and against a Palestinian family, also today I was planning to talk to you about a different subject. The things that have been happening in the last weeks have convinced me that even if my other subject was important, what I am going to say it’s urgent.

Maimonides said that the main commandment of Rosh Hashanah, to hear the Shofar, should be like a waking call for our souls, it should help us to shake off our apathy and stand up. Stand up for what is right; stand up for what is holy, stand up even if it’s difficult and complex.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with a Conference that took place in Evian, France. It was to discuss the issue of thousands of refugees looking for a place to go in Western Europe or America, even South America if that’s the only option. Most countries sent representatives, including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Chile and many others. Israel could not send anyone officially, but sent a non-official delegate. This conference was a complete failure, as most countries were not willing to change their immigrations quotas, not even before the humanitarian crisis in front of them. I understand some of the motives of these countries: some said that they don’t have a racism problem and don’t want to import one; some said that these refugees don’t have the right education and will be a burden on the country; some said that they are afraid there are hostile elements infiltrated inside the refugees that will endanger the security of their countries. But still… you see… these Jewish refugees really needed to leave Germany and Austria in 1938 and had nowhere to go. Most of them were murdered during the Shoah.

Children dying in Sea because they were refugees trying to reach a new land of freedom it’s not only a tragedy of our days. Jewish children died in ships like the Struma or the Patria that were carrying Jewish refugees from Europe and after being denied entry by several countries the ships sank in the Sea.

According to most historians, the United Kingdom was not kind to Jewish refugees either during the Shoah. According to the book “Whitehall And The Jews”, Louise London’s definitive account of British immigration policy and the Holocaust, “The process…was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps 10 times as many as it let in. The myth was born that Britain did all it could for the Jews between 1933 and 1945. This comfortable view has proved remarkably durable, and is still adduced to support claims that Britain has always admitted genuine refugees, and that the latest harsh measures against asylum seekers are merely designed to exclude bogus applicants. Memories of the unsuccessful public campaign to persuade the government to rescue Jews from mass murder faded quickly. What’s more, those that were granted entry were admitted only because the Jewish community guaranteed that it would bear all the expenses of accommodation and maintenance, with no burden placed on the public purse”.

It looks to me that once every few decades G-d tests humankind, checks whether we love enough our fellow humans, whether we have learnt to see the Divine image in every human being, whether we are capable to extend our help to people suffering beyond our close circles of belonging. We were the victims in the 1930’s and the World failed to respond to the challenge, we were hunted and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators and abandoned by the rest of the World. Today we are facing a new test and the question remains whether the World will be up to the challenge this time, whether the United Kingdom will be up to the challenge, whether the Jewish people, now in a position of comfort and power, will be up to the challenge.

And I know what many of you are thinking, what I think sometimes as well. How we were different, because most of these people now are moslems who won’t really fit into our society. Maybe the biggest fear we have is that terrorist elements will infiltrate these refugees and be a danger to us. Let me teach you a Midrash about our Torah reading today.

We read about Hagar and Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, being expulsed from their home. They wander in the desert and are about to die of thirst when an angel appears to Hagar and tells her that G-d heard the voice of the boy Ishmael, “b’asher hu sham”, where he is right now, and decided to save them with a water spring. In Midrash Tanhuma the angels tell G-d that in the future the descendants of Ishmael, the Arab people, will cause a lot of suffering to the People of Israel, so why would G-d save him now giving him water. G-d asks the angels: “What is Ishmael right now? Righteous or wicked?” The angels said: “He is a boy, of course he is righteous”. G-d answered: “According to his present deeds I will judge him”, b’asher hu sham, where he is right now. When I read this Midrash I cannot help to think about the heart breaking picture of 3 year old boy Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on the sand. No, we are not angels, we cannot know the impact of these refugees in our societies, on the Jewish life in the continent; we can only echo the Torah and Midrash and work to save those now innocent refugees escaping the ravages of war and terror , b’asher hem sham, where they are now.

Tomorrow we will read the story of the Akedah, of the sacrifice of Yitzchak. One of the amazing things about Avraham in this story is his willingness to always, when called, answer hineni, here I am, in body and soul, with all his being. There already some people in the Jewish community saying Hineni to the refugee crisis of our times. The former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, Lord Jonathan Sacks, said that the UK should be more generous in the amount of refugees is  willing to take. In his words: “A strong humanitarian response on the part of Europe and the international community could achieve what military intervention and political negotiation have failed to achieve. This would constitute the clearest evidence that the European experience of two world wars and the Holocaust have taught that free societies, where people of all faiths and ethnicities make space for one another, are the only way to honour our shared humanity, whether we conceive that humanity in secular or religious terms. Fail this and we will have failed one of the fundamental tests of humanity.”

Organizations like Jewish Relief, UK Task Force and Tzelem are working to ease the suffering of the refugees. A letter has been sent to Prime Minister David Cameron signed by rabbis from all denominations, including myself, asking him to heed Rabbi Sacks’s opinion. In Israel, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu refused to take any refugees at all; Israel still has been helping in other ways, like for example providing 1768 Syrian refugees with medical care in Israel institutions. All these people and institutions have said Hineni, are acting according to the best standards of our tradition and morals, are being a true light to the Nations in this dark hour.

Pirkei Avot says lo alecha hamelacha ligmor aval ein ata ben chorin lehibatel mimena, it is not your duty to finish the task, but you are not allowed to ignore it. As Jews, but more basically as human beings, we have an obligation to be part of the solution, of the help, of the light side of humankind. If you want to know how to help, after the Yom Tov go into the Internet and you will find plenty of opportunities to help with money, with clothing, with time. Personally, I will propose to the Shul that we dedicate our Mitzvah Day this year to a project related to the refugee crisis. Privately, as an individual, I am trying to find my own ways to cooperate and spread the message.

I want to finish with a poem by Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Dean of the Masorti Rabbinical Seminary in Los Angeles:

Child of God …

… joins an exile endured by millions,

bombed out of their homes,

villages flattened and burned,

forced to flee

without destination.

“Go to the land I will show you,

the place where I will cause Myself to be seen.”

Who will take him in?

Who will embrace him, hold him,

soothe him?

Who will show him that we are

compassionate and merciful,

long-suffering but great in lovingkindness,

like the One

in Whose image we are made.

Does it matter whose baby this is?

When we see a baby crying, does it matter whose baby this is?

May we all have a better year, of good news, of hope, of freedom, of peace.  Shanah Tovah

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