We Are a Nation of Immigrants

Last night I participated in my town of Westborough’s Interfaith Thanksgiving. Our program was entitled ‘Welcoming the Stranger’, recalling that part of the Thanksgiving narrative is a story of those who arrived by boat on these shores, seeking freedom to worship in their own way. Woven between the choral pieces were accounts from a Jew who arrived from Russia this year, a Christian who had lived in town for 50 years after surviving oppression under both the Nazi regime in Germany and the Communist regime in East Germany, a Muslim who recalled growing up in Toronto before coming to the United States, and a Sikh who shared a core Sikh text about the transformative power of welcoming the stranger. We heard Hebrew mantra chant, Sikh devotional chant, and Christian hymns.

When our interfaith clergy group first discussed making this the focus of our gathering this year, we had all been shocked into an awakened state by the heart-rending picture of a 3-year-old boy lying, dead, on a shoreline. We did not imagine then that we would find ourselves raising up these stories and these teachings at a time when some, including too many of our political leaders, are calling for us to close our borders to Syrian refugees entirely. That, too, is heart-rending.

Last night I shared a text from a 13th- century source – Sefer HaChinuch, historically attributed to Rabbi Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona, although scholars have debated this attribution and offered other possibilities.

From Sefer HaHinuch, in explanation of the precept “Thou shalt not oppress the stranger” :

This precept applies at all times and places both to males and females, and whoever transgresses it and causes suffering to strangers, or neglects to save them or their property, or makes light of them, on account of their being strangers and helpless, has thereby abrogated this positive precept. Their punishment is severe indeed, since the Torah contains many such admonitions.

We should learn from this valuable precept to show compassion to any man not in his home town, far from his friends, just as we observe that the Torah admonishes us to show compassion to all in need. Through these moral qualities we shall merit the compassion of the Lord. The text motivates the precept stating that: ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ It reminds us that we had already experienced the great suffering that one strange in a foreign land feels. By picturing to ourselves the pain involved which we ourselves had already undergone, from which God, in His mercy, delivered us, our compassion will be stirred up towards every man in his plight.

Nearly 1,000 years later, we are still challenged to live by this precept. The debates will continue and a small-town worship service may not, at first appear to be a very powerful vehicle to share a different narrative. But there can be no doubt that last night over 200 people left having been inspired by the stories and the message. Our Thanksgiving collection, directed to a Worcester agency that provides training, counseling, language courses, and more, to refugees arriving from all over the world, raised over double our usual collection at these gatherings.

As we gather around our Thanksgiving tables tomorrow, I invite you to share your family stories of immigration as, together, we remember that we are a nation of immigrants.

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