Shabbat Yitro on February 3rd was a special day for IJC in several ways. Our community joined many other communities across the globe to observe HIAS’ Sixth Annual Refugee Shabbat, expressing our solidarity with the “global Jewish movement for refugee protection and welcome.”
The Torah portion Yitro includes the Ten Words/Commandments that are so central to our Jewish ethical life. Seeking to draw connections between these Ten Words and the plight of refugees, I came across a text entitled ‘Ten Commandments for Refugees’ published by the government of a European member state. To my dismay, the text turned out to be ten steps refugees should take to make themselves acceptable to Europeans. So, I turned the tables and explored the ways the Ten Words might inspire us Europeans to be more acceptable to refugees.
The first ‘Word’ seems more like a statement than a commandment – I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. It reminds us nevertheless that we too were once refugees, that we too lived in a hostile place and were forced to leave and embark on a dangerous journey towards our own promised land. The second Word – You shall have no other gods beside Me – confronts us with our modern-day idols. Have we made idols of our own comfort? Do we not have everything that we need? Is it impossible for us to consider sharing our wealth? Even with those refugees who have not fled war or oppression, but are in search of a better life for themselves and their children.
The third Word – You shall not take the name of the Lord Your God in vain confronts me with my own complacency. When I pray and ask God to help the poor, the oppressed, the refugee, the asylum seeker… am I not taking God’s name in vain? Would I not be better to ask where I myself and us as a community can help the poor, the oppressed, the refugee, the asylum seeker? Traditionally we interpret the fourth Word – Remember/Observe the Sabbath, to keep it holy – as a command to rest from work and the stresses of life. But the commandment also reminds us that this rest must be extended to ‘the stranger who is within your gates’, that we bear a responsibility to offer rest and respite to refugees as one potential way to make Shabbat holy.
The fifth Word – Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord God gives you – draws our thoughts to the many fathers and mothers who have risked their lives to reach safer shores, to places they and their children can thrive. Are we ready to share our land? This fifth commandment reminds us that what we have is a gift given us by God, that we do not own the land. The sixth Word – You shall not kill – reminds us that refugees face death every day, in contexts of war and the hazardous journeys they must often undertake. How can we protect the vulnerable refugee?
The remaining commandments – You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not covet your neighbour’s property. All remind us of our responsibility towards our neighbour, especially our vulnerable neighbour. According to the Pirke Avot – the Ethics of Our Ancestors – there are four types of human being. One who says: “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” – this is the trait of an average person; one who says: “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” – this is Am Haaretz or the ignorant person; one who says: “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” – this is the Rasha or the wicked person; the one who says “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” – this is the Chasid or pious person.
Our tradition insists that when it comes to our neighbour, especially our vulnerable neighbour, our neighbour in need, our refugee neighbour, we must strive not to be average, or ignorant, or wicked… but strive rather to be Chasidim and to give, to welcome, to share.