Posted on March 5, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
A Message for Refugee Shabbat
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God commands Moses to take a census by having each person give a half-shekel coin. Instead of counting the people, which was taboo, they would determine the number of people by counting the coins.
The money collected would be used for the needs of the sanctuary, making the exercise a fundraiser. But from the description we see that it was an unusual fundraiser, because the Torah states that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than a half-shekel.” If the goal was at least in part to raise money, why limit what the rich could give?
The answer is that a core value of mustering the community was equality. Each and every Israelite was considered to be of equal value, regardless of their means. This principle of seeing people as equal extended even beyond those who were Jewish to include the strangers who lived among us. As we read in Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself….”
The fundamental lesson at the core of both the census and the treatment of the stranger is that we should see each other, and all people, as God sees us – as equally precious and of infinite value. When one of us is in distress or in need, we should look upon them with compassion and treat them with kindness. For example, when someone says, “I’m hungry,” Jewish law forbids us to doubt or question them. We must extend the benefit of the doubt and provide for their needs.
The Talmud relates a story that demonstrates just how serious is this matter of judging one another kindly:
There was a man from Upper Galilee who came to work for a man in the south. After three years, on the eve of Yom Kippur, he asked his employer to pay him so he could go home and provide for his family.
“I have no money,” said the employer. “Give me produce instead,” said the worker. “I have none,” he replied. “Then give me land,” said the worker. “I have none,” he replied. “Give me cattle,” said the worker. “I have none,” replied the boss. “Give me pillows and bedding,” said the worker. “I have none,” said the boss. So the worker slung his belongings on his back and went home with a sorrowful heart.
I want to pause the story here and ask: if you were the worker, what would you be thinking? Would you believe your boss? Would you trust that he was being honest; that he truly couldn’t pay your wages and had nothing to give you? Think about this as you read the conclusion of the story.
After the holy days, the employer took the wages that the worker had earned, loaded three donkeys with food and drink, and set out for the worker’s home in Upper Galilee. When he arrived, they shared a meal, and the employer then asked: “When you requested your wages and I answered that I had no money, what did you think?” “I thought, perhaps you came across cheap merchandise and had used all your money to buy it.” “And when you asked me to give you cattle and I said I have none, what did you suspect?” “I thought you must have rented them to others,” said the worker. “And when you asked me to pay you with land and I said I had none, what did you think?” “I thought, perhaps you had leased it to others.” “And when you asked for produce and I said I have none?” “I thought, perhaps they had not been tithed,” said the worker. “And when I told you I have no pillows or bedding, of what did you suspect me?” “I thought maybe you had pledged all your property as an offering to the Temple.” “It is exactly so, said the employer. I had pledged all my property as a guarantee for my son Hyrcanus, and now it has been restored to me. And as for you, my dear friend, just as you trusted me and judged me favorably, so may God always look kindly upon you and judge you favorably. (Talmud Shabbat 127a)
Many people might have doubted the employer and assumed that he was trying to cheat the worker out of what he was due. But not the worker. He had no way to know if his boss was lying, so he chose to believe him and think the best of him.
I have shared this story with you because on this Shabbat Jews around the world are turning their thoughts to the plight of refugees who have fled their homes because of war or famine or other threats to their lives and are seeking a place to be safe and secure.
As Jews, we know this story, because so many of us have been refugees. My great-grandparents were refugees who came to this land to escape poverty and violence. And they were not alone. Most of us, if not all of us, have a similar story to tell – as do most Americans. Except for the indigenous peoples of this land, we are all the descendants of refugees and immigrants. As such, we “should know the heart of the stranger, for you yourself were strangers….” (Exodus 23:9)
In recent years, we as a nation have looked unkindly on refugees. They have been called criminals and even worse. Many Americans have closed their hearts, and America has closed its doors to those in desperate need. Thankfully, there are signs that this is beginning to change, but there is so much more that needs to be done.
To be sure, America alone cannot solve the many problems that have led to the greatest refugee crisis in a century, but we can and must do our part. What is certain is that we can and must have a change of heart. Let us embrace the mitzvah to love others as ourselves, to judge one another kindly, and to see the best in one another. Let us look upon one another as God sees us, as precious souls, each of whom is deserving of love and kindness.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck