At our August 11th service, Rabbi Steven delivered this sermon as a reflection on the move to shelter over 500 asylum seekers in his neighborhood. You can listen to this drash on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on YouTube.
I live at the edge of Lakeview East and Buena Park, right across the street from the American Islamic College. The AIC is a small, private university housed in what was once Immaculata High School, a historically landmarked building that was recently slated for development as a mixed-used space of apartments and senior living facility. There have been some worries about how 437 new units will affect traffic in the area (anyone who has come to grab coffee with me knows how impossible parking is in that neighborhood) — and like many new developments, there has been a push-and-pull between those who are excited about the possibility of much needed housing and those who are opposed to bringing more people to an already congested part of town.
But then a few weeks ago, we received word from our alderperson that this development has been put on pause. The building will now be a temporary migrant shelter for 500 to 600 asylum seekers, with the Department of Family and Support Services providing meals, medical services, and case management. People were upset – where they had been invited to join the conversation about the proposed development, this change in plans had already been decided by city officials. People began to ask questions: Why them? Why here? How long? Is there anywhere else they can go? Why does this have to happen in my neighborhood?
And I get it, that not-in-my-backyard impulse. For as much as I care about fixing the brokenness that exists all around us, I also like being able to step away from it – to exist, if only for a moment, in my safe, comfortable, worry-free corner of the world. It is an incredible privilege – and one that so many people don’t have access to, people like those now living across the street from me.
So while they are understandable questions (the “why them, why here, how long”), we also know that they are fundamentally selfish ones. For really, the question that we should be asking – the question that comes from our inherent empathy and inclination toward justice – is: why is this happening at all?
In our reading this week, the Torah proposes a world where quick fixes like temporary shelters and the services they provide are no longer needed.
אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן כִּֽי־בָרֵ֤ךְ יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹֽתֵן־לְךָ֥ נַחֲלָ֖ה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ
“There will be no needy among you — since God will bless you in the land that God has given you to inhabit.” It is important to understand that the Torah is not talking about the world as it could be, but the world as it is: one that already has enough resources to provide for the basic needs of every single person, if only they are distributed responsibly and equitably. We are already in the land that God has given us to inhabit. We are blessed with incredible abundance.
The medieval commentator Rashi points out that the word evyon, often translated as needy, has a particular valance to it. This is not just someone who has less, but – related to the word for longing – is someone who wants for everything: food, shelter, community. A someone not unlike the asylum seekers being housed across the street from my apartment.
It is hard to imagine the desperation that would compel someone to leave their home with the hope that somewhere else, anywhere else, is better than where they are now. So often the discourse around migrants talks about their choice to flee their communities of origin in the same way we might speak about someone traveling for work or pleasure. But the reality is that this “choice”, if we can call it one, is compelled by necessity. The British-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote in her poem “Home” —
“You have to understand / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land / no one burns their palms / under trains / beneath carriages / no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck / feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled / means something more than journey. / no one crawls under fences / no one wants to be beaten / pitied / no one chooses refugee camps / or strip searches where your / body is left aching / or prison, / because prison is safer / than a city of fire.”
Our tradition demands a world where the experience of the refugee is a memory, not a present reality.
I think that for so many of us the not-in-my-backyard impulse comes from a place of justice fatigue. I know that this is a community of people who give of their time and resources, who truly care about making this world a better place (it is one of the things that makes me very proud to be one of your rabbis). And so when another crisis presents itself, I get the inclination to throw your hands in the air and say: I pay my taxes. I vote. I give tzedakah. I go to protests. I volunteer. I make conscious choices every single day to try to heal the world, even if just a little. How could it possibly be my responsibility to take on another cause – even though I feel for these people, even though I wish this wasn’t the reality of their situation?
But it is precisely this mindset that leads the Torah to say:
כִּֽי־יִהְיֶה֩ בְךָ֨ אֶבְי֜וֹן מֵאַחַ֤ד אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּאַ֨רְצְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵאָחִ֖יךָ הָאֶבְיֽוֹן
When there are needy among you – perhaps one of your kin or someone within your community – in the land that God has given you to inhabit, do not harden your heart – but open your hand and give whatever is sufficient to meet their need.
Wait. Didn’t the Torah just say, a few lines above, that there will be no needy? And then just a handful of verses after this one, the Torah states:
כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹ֠חַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ
For there will never cease to be needy in your land, which is why I (that is God) am commanding you: open your hand to your kin, to the poor, and to the most desperate. The rabbis, of course, are perplexed by the contradiction between these statements. But among the commentary offered about these verses, I found one offered by the medieval rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (Chizkuni) to be the most helpful. In our first verse, the Torah shows us the world as it is: capable of providing for all of its inhabitants. And in the following verses, the Torah illustrates the world as we make it: where resources are hoarded, where systems are created that privilege the few over the many, where the abundance we have been blessed with is distributed unequally according to race and gender and class and status.
And while we may not have been the architects of the world as it is, we have helped build it — consciously and unconsciously. As much as I dislike saying it, we’re complicit; we didn’t ask to be, but we are.
One of my undergraduate degrees was in international relations (this was my “practical” major alongside fine arts and creative writing). The first semester of my freshman year, every IR student took an introductory seminar — one of those classes where 150 of us are packed into an auditorium, where you think you can get away with not doing the reading until you discover that the professor has an uncanny ability to cold call you by name about a week into the course.
For our first class we had a series of academic articles assigned: one on the working conditions of sweatshops in Southeast Asia, one on intertribal conflicts fueled by exploitative mining in the Congo, one on the legacy of puppet governments and natural resource management in South America, one on import and export tariffs in the European Union, and one on whether American intellectual property law could be enforced internationally. The teacher lectured about each, showing how we might eventually apply what we learned as IR students. And then at the end of class, he explained that lest we ever think that our lives are divorced from these issues we only need to look in our pockets — each of the articles we read is fueled in part by the manufacturing and distribution of parts needed for cell phones.
Our lives are part of global system where the comfort and privilege I enjoy in my high rise apartment is implicated by the desperation and pain experienced by the asylum seekers taking refuge across the street from me.
And lest we think that we are immune to falling victim to a system that values the lives of some over the lives of others, we only have to look back a generation. In 1939, the MS St Louis left Nazi Germany with over 900 Jews seeking to escape persecution. The refugees first tried to disembark in Cuba but were denied entry. The captain then turned to the United States and Canada, who also refused to accept them. Upon returning to Europe, the UK took 288 refugees but denied entry to the rest. The remaining 619 disembarked in the Netherlands, of which 254 were murdered in death camps.
Most of us are here in America today because someone made the decision to allow our ancestors to stay.
And because we are part of this system, because our history teaches us the consequences of this system – we are responsible for helping fix it. We have been given a world which contains the resources necessary for equity and justice. As this week’s Torah portion begins: I have placed before you a blessing and a curse. It is up to us to choose which to bring into being.
But don’t I get a break?
Yes! It’s called Shabbat. Our tradition recognizes that the safe, comfortable, worry-free corner of the world I mentioned earlier is something we fundamentally need – not to retreat from our responsibility to repair brokenness, but to allow us a moment to rest, recover, and reconnect so that we can re-engage with this work with renewed energy and resolve. This institution is not only a holy one, it is a necessary one. Our being here outside, singing together, breathing the summer air, with dinner over at Don Pedro after services (there are still some spots available), taking a full day to bask in the bounty of the world helps us remember that abundance is there – it always has been, for us, and for everyone. This isn’t conceptual, something we need to understand — but something we should feel, that we should allow to sink in, to give ourselves a full day of efes ki lo yihyeh l’cha evyon — that there be no needy among you — so that we can act from a place of knowing that what we’re doing isn’t futile or naive. It matters. And it makes a difference.
And then when Shabbat is over, we get back to it. We have a group of Mishkanites who are working on assisting migrants who are housed in police stations and temporary shelters across the city [point them out]. I hope you’ll join them, however you’re able, in being part of the movement to bring the world that is possible into being – we already have the tools and resources for change, it is up to us to make the choice.