25 June 2010

Why Can't We?

When Balaam chooses to bless Israel in this week's Torah portion, rather than curse them as his leader Balak would have him do, his words unleash an ancient poetic form that our ancestors adored so much they made it the opening liturgy of a formal morning prayer service:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwellings O Israel
Like palm groves that stretch out
Like gardens beside a river
Like aloes planted by the Lord
Like cedars beside the water.
Unable to curse, Balaam blesses, brought to his own knees of realization by a speaking mule, a beast of burden of the working man and woman, not unlike the primitive modes of transportation that move people from treacherous inlands to guarded borders and maybe, luckily, to the safety and opportunity of what a new land can offer.

Balaam's blessing enrages his king Balak:  "I called you to damn my enemies and instead you have blessed them these three times!  Back with you at once to your own place!  I was going to reward you richly but the Lord has denied you the reward."  But Balaam will have nothing of it and he tells Balak that such words are false in the face of the truth he's realized:  "What the Lord says, that I must say."

"Back with you at once to your own place!"  Is this an order of deportation?

With the news today that twenty other states are considering passing immigration laws similar to those laws passed in Arizona recently,  I think about the shameful ways that certain Americans are caught up in damning those who would see our groves and gardens and sing their praises, forcing them, at gunpoint and with the specter of arrest, to go back to their own place.

In preparing some material on our community's historic burial plots in Queens for my High Holy Days sermons, I re-read some favorite passages from Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism, and Hasia Diner's the Jews of the United States.  I was looking for the particular feeling of optimism and possibility that our ancestors expressed in starting life anew in America and how critically important it is to the continual regeneration of our country that those not born here seek a new life here, if only to reinvigorate the very ideals upon which this nation was established.

Walking around the Canarsie Cemetery earlier in the week, I read the names on the stones--English, Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, and now, reflective of the neighborhood's ever-evolving demographic, West Indian.  The particularities of who we are as Americans is always changing; the values and ideals is what we represent, not what we look like or where we come from.

Late Friday I received an email alert from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, my favorite Reform institution.  The email encourages Americans to write Senator Charles Schumer, urging him to introduce Comprehensive Immigration Reform Legislation.  I'm going to do it and I encourage you to do the same.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwellings O Israel
Like palm groves that stretch out
Like gardens beside a river
Like aloes planted by the Lord
Like cedars beside the water.
 That's what Balaam said.   An American born poet Emma Lazarus, whose Spanish-Portuguese Jewish family had been in America since the Colonial period, wrote the following:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
 If an American whose roots are in the Colonial period can welcome the immigrant, why can't we?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So true.