Sermon: Ki Tetze: Sharing Our Country

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 August 2013

We have been advised many times by those agencies and charities which should know what they are talking about that we would do better not to give loose change and little bits of money to beggars.  These charities and agencies tell us that if we really want to help those in need on the streets of London then we should make a regular or one off donation to Shelter, Centrepoint, the Refugee Councils, Housing Action in Barnet or one of the other groups.  Only they can ensure that your money is going to a person in genuine need for worthwhile purposes.

Even so I am sure that most of us once in a while feel compelled to give to one person who approaches us at the right time in the right way.

When I arrived in Cape Town last October for my Sabbatical working with Temple Israel there I was given Rabbi Greg Alexander’s car to drive, as I was working in his place.  The cubby hole where a radio might be was full of small coins.  I wondered why and soon found out.  The destitute in Cape Town, and there are hundreds of thousands of such people living in makeshift shacks on the outskirts of the townships, have ways of begging which are actually pretty positive.  At most traffic lights, or robots as they are called in South Africa, there will be a man or woman standing with a bin liner – they take the rubbish from your car and you give them a rand – 10p or so.  Eventually you get into the habit of making sure you have an empty can in the car or something to throw out so that you can do your little bit to help.  Another scheme enables the destitute to buy a weekly sheet of jokes for a fraction of a rand and sell that at the Robot for 5 rand – it becomes a Friday regular to buy your copy of Funny money through the car window.

Our Torah and Talmud and pretty much all subsequent Jewish sources have always considered giving charity in whatever circumstances to be a Mitzvah – an obligation upon a Jew called Tzedakah.  Of course earlier Jewish sources mostly portray charity as something done between one person and another directly – there having been no government housing agencies and NGO’s two thousand years ago – a transaction between the beggar and the giver.

We are used to the idea that the beggar should be appreciative when given our coppers – but the Talmud would have it just the other way – that the giver should thank the beggar for asking him or her.  By responding the giver he has been given the opportunity to do a mitzvah at very little cost or inconvenience to himself.  Once Rabbi Bunam was asked why there is no blessing when giving charity as there is when performing other Mitzvot, like putting on the tallit, entering a Sukkah or reading from the Torah.  Rabbi Bunam answered – “it is so no one should ever think that since the time or place is not appropriate to utter God’s name in a blessing, that they should pause from responding to the needs of another person.”

The giving of tzedakah person to person, as it is described in most Jewish sources is not discriminatory.  The beggar does not need to be related to you, or to be a Jew, or to have any link with you whatsoever for it to be a mitzvah upon you to help him if you can.  Similarly in our Torah portion this Shabbat, the mitzvot of attending to straying animals, lost property and building your house safely are directed at anybody.  It is of course, not literally your brother for whom you should do these things – but for anyone who is in need and whose plight is obvious to you.  It was Cain the murderer who denied that he was his brother’s keeper!

Many more of the seventy two mitzvot that are contained in our portion this week could be gathered under the heading of tzedakah, and all are open to all in need to take advantage of.
But what if what you are being asked to share by strangers is your country?  What if the needy people are refugees fleeing danger, persecution and living conditions that you would never tolerate for yourself?

On 13th May 1939, 930 Jewish refugees boarded the Hamburg-Amerika Line’s “St Louis” with Cuban landing permissions.  They set sail from Hamburg with 10 Reichmarks each and a suitcase – having had to surrender all their other assets. in the face of adverse comment of an anti-Semitic nature in the local press the Cuban government revoked the landing permissions.  The United States refused to take the refugees even though 734 of them had quota numbers to enter the USA as immigrants, which would be valid within three months to three years. The ship was turned round to return to Europe and docked in Antwerp where 287 of the passengers were granted permission to enter England – 244 to France, 214 to Belgium and 181 to Holland thanks to the efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee.  Of course many of those who went to countries which were later taken over by the Nazis did not survive the Shoah.

Although England was third only to the United States and Argentina in the numbers of refugees that she saved from death – taking in 52,000 Jews the Daily Express, in its editorial on the issue on 19th June 1939 was less than charitable saying “The plight of these refugees wandering helplessly over the seas searching in search of a home, won the sympathy of the world.  The decision to allow some of them to land in this country was approved by public opinion.  This example must not set a precedent.  There is no room for any more refugees in this country.”

And apparently – seventy four years later – there is not enough room here in the UK again. Rabbi Colin Eimer {[1]} points out that the parallel with the current campaign against illegal immigrants is strong. I don’t know if you’ve seen the advertising trucks going around with the billboard on the side panel posing the question: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.” Police have been doing spot-checks at railway station barriers, entrances to Underground stations and so on.

Not much more than one hundred years ago, of course, many of our ancestors came here as migrants. And the enormous contribution to this country of those migrants and their descendants is a story that can fill us with pride.

Knowing how difficult our past has been can lead not just to sympathy but a deeper empathy for those who are now in the situation that we were in. It hones our sense of compassion and concern for those who are now where we were then. It engenders a feeling of ‘never again should anything like that happen to anybody else.’

One of the most frequently repeated commands in the Torah is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. The meaning is obvious, surely. Now you have had your liberation, don’t forget the bitterness of that oppression and hatred. One of the requirements of every Jewish service is that there is some reminder – direct or more oblique – of the Exodus from Egypt. In other words, don’t forget where you have come from. Don’t you become an oppressor in the way you were oppressed.

But there is a deeper, more subversive meaning and possibility. Don’t focus on the liberation, but on Pharaoh. He thought he was the most powerful man in the world and could act with impunity – and yet he was brought low, humbled and destroyed. Maybe that’s why we need to sit around our Seder tables each year to remember – not our liberation, but what happened to those who thought they were invincible.

“In the UK illegally?” Rabbi Eimer askes What sort of mind thinks up such a slogan which turns one person against another, sows seeds of suspicion between people, and creates a class of people who potentially can feel hunted? Invariably, it’s those at the bottom of the economic heap who will be the most affected, because they are the most vulnerable. They know they are at most risk of being deported. As for us, it’s relatively easy to find apparently good justifications for why this isn’t unfair: “well, at the end of the day they are illegal immigrants, aren’t they?….” “they don’t contribute to the State, do they?….” “they’re just economic migrants, after all.” Familiar phrases, familiar arguments. All of them designed to create a distance between us and ‘them,’ enabling us not to feel we are somehow implicated in what happens to them. Paolo Freire, the great South American educator, famously said that washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless doesn’t make you neutral but means, inevitably, that you side with the powerful.

‘Economic migrants’ should be a phrase we Jews abhor. The prevailing belief is that Jews came from Eastern Europe after 1880 to escape persecution. A comforting myth, maybe, but the truth is much more complex. Of course, there were those who came in desperation, looking for a place of safety from persecution. But the majority of Jews, especially those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were seeking a better life for themselves and their children. They were the ‘economic migrants’ of their time.

Edie Friedman, Director of the the Jewish Council for Racial Equality cautions against “simplistic analysis: that we were the good and deserving migrants and those arriving today are not.”  All current attempts to legislate about immigration have their origin in the 1905 Aliens Act which was passed, primarily, to control Jewish immigration into this country from Eastern Europe. A generation later, as we heard from the Daily Express in 1939, the same things were being said about Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution.

It wasn’t true then – and isn’t true now. According to the Office for National Statistics, currently migrants make up just 1 in 10 of the UK population, lower than Australia, the US or Germany. Just over 1 in 10 new jobs are taken by migrants – which means almost 9 jobs out of 10 go to British nationals.

Migrants and asylum seekers are inevitably soft and easy targets, who can be made scapegoats for society’s woes. Yet, be they legal or illegal, migrants must surely be pretty low down the list of those responsible for our current economic difficulties. Perpetuating that rhetoric does nothing to address real issues but it does a lot for creating communal disharmony.

Given our history it is always disheartening to hear anti-immigrant stuff coming from the mouths of fellow-Jews; but also so uplifting to find so many Jews putting in their tuppence-worth to create a better, more-cohesive, fairer, more-decent, more just society, like Edie Friedman at JCORE, Tsedek, Rene Cassin, this synagogue’s involvement with The Night Shelter in Golders Green, our Refugee Drop-In and so on and so on.

Love isn’t something you can command from somebody. Only three times are we told in the Torah to love: God, in the opening words of the Shema: ‘you shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart’; secondly, to ‘love your neighbour’; and, thirdly, to love the stranger. That command is the most frequently-repeated command in the Torah – something like 35 times or more. Let us struggle with all our might not to be sucked into that “in the UK illegally?” way of thinking. May we all find the strength to reject such ideas. We were ‘strangers’ then – they are ‘strangers’ now. We know the heart of the stranger.


[1] From this point on this sermon quotes extensively from Rabbi Colin Eimer’s sermon for Re’eh 2013.  Rabbi Eimer is Rabbi at Sha’arei Tzedek Synagogue in Whetstone, London