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Rabbi Schwartz's Immigration Reflections

The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's sermon from Shabbat services on June 30th, 2018, including Rabbi's reflections about the current immigration debate.

It has been a rough season for the Orioles, with poor play on the field and loss after loss piling up in the standings.  But this week, for a brief time, there was a ray of light on the field at Camden Yards. Those of you who are still watching the games probably know that on Thursday afternoon the Os fell to the Seattle Mariners 4-2. What you may not know, unless you tuned in to the game very early, is that the best moment of the afternoon happened before the game even started, with the singing of the National Anthem.

A young man named Nicholas Nauman – 18 years old – was wheeled out onto the field by his mother in his wheelchair. He has a host of serious challenges that he wrestles with every day, among them cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment, which essentially means Nicholas is blind. He was adopted from Eastern Europe and raised by his parents in Maryland and grew up rooting for the Orioles. With his mother holding a microphone at his mouth, he leaned his head back in the wheelchair and sang the National Anthem. When he finished singing the crowd burst into thunderous applause, the umpires came over and shook his hand, and a number of the players and staff from the teams came by to say hi and thank him.

It was a heartwarming moment, and in many ways struck me as being quintessentially American. It wasn’t just the setting – Camden Yards, still to this day one of the most beautiful ballparks in the Major Leagues. It was the spirit of what happened on the field Tuesday afternoon. The sense that we are all equal, all human, regardless of the severity of the challenges we face in life. That we all deserve to be treated equally, and that we all deserve – again, regardless of the challenges we face – to have every opportunity to live our lives fully and with meaning, with the support not only of family and friends but of the very society we call our home.

Those are classic American values – freedom, opportunity, equality, and of course baseball. As the young man sang, the Stars and Stripes were waving gently in the breeze of a summer afternoon. The crowd stood, many putting their hands over their hearts, doffing their caps, feeling a joined sense of identity and common purpose. They all came together in one beautiful moment Thursday afternoon at the ballpark.

And it seems so odd to me – such an incongruity – that that moment happened in our present time.   That moment that was so much about our shared humanity, and the capacity we have to recognize in the struggle of our own story, and the sense we so often have that there but for the grace of God go I.  I guess maybe that is precisely why Nicholas’ singing of the National Anthem stood out so starkly in this dark and disturbing time.

I guess what seems so jarring to me is this: how can we, on the one hand, as a nation, create that kind of moment – so beautiful, and pure, and uplifting – how can we create that on the one hand, while on the other hand we have been forcibly separating parents from children, or figuring out ways to close our doors to those who would wish to join with us in common purpose? Which of these things reflects what America truly is? Which of them reflects what and who we are, as Jews, as members of a community, as human beings?

Perhaps the answer is that always we are some balance between those two poles. That within our society – and within ourselves – there is always the capacity to create that Camden Yards kind of moment – a sacred, uplifting, that celebrates our humanity. But also, within our society and within ourselves, there is the capacity to create moments when we give in to fear of the other, when our baser instincts get the best of us, when we focus on what makes us different, not what makes us the same, and when we fail to live up to the promise of our tradition, our national values, or for that matter ourselves. And sometimes, as Lincoln said it, the better angels of our nature prevail, and we find ourselves celebrating a young man who is somehow, almost miraculously able to sing our national anthem. And other times we lose the battle, and we give in to our fear and paranoia, and we suddenly find that we have separated thousands of children from their parents.

I say ‘we’ because in a sense we are all responsible. Rabbi Loeb would often say that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. With sins of commission, we participate in the wrong that is done. With sins of omission, we don’t lend a hand; we just look the other way.  But our tradition is crystal clear on this – whether we actually participate in what is wrong, whether we look the other way and pretend it is all fine, or whether we decide to speak out for what we know in our hearts to be true and right and just – whatever our decision, it is our decision and we alone are responsible.

We read from the Torah this morning the sad tale of Bilaam the prophet, called upon by the Moabite King to curse the Israelites. Three times Bilaam steps forward to utter those curses demanded by the King, and three times, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them. Tradition has long understood that God causes Bilaam's sudden reversals. That is to say, his true intention is to curse our people, but God forces him to bless them.

But what if Bilaam’s blessings came about not because of an external force – God – but because of his own internal struggle. That is to say, it wasn’t God that forced Bilaam to do the right thing. Instead, in his own heart and soul he came to an understanding of what was right and what was wrong, he managed to conquer the fear and the suspicion of the Israelites that was driving him, and then he made a choice – he made the choice. Instead of cursing these foreigners, (he said to himself) instead of wishing them harm, I am going to bless them, because I see myself in who they are, I see in their struggle a struggle that I may have had, I see in their humanity my humanity, and also simply because it is the right thing to do.

Please note, by the way, this is not an argument about who should or should not be allowed into the country. It actually has nothing to do with that. Bilaam does not invite the Israelites into Moab. It is obvious that our immigration system needs a serious overhaul, and it goes without saying that there must be a system in place and that it has to have restrictions and guidelines. And the politicians will have to figure that out.

But this argument is about something different – it is about how we treat people, whether we say yes or no to them. Because how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them. And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity.  And when we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and values that are diminished.

A moment like that young man’s singing of the national anthem reminds us all of what we aspire to be, as a nation, as a community, as individuals. Let us choose that path, let us fulfill those aspirations, let us reaffirm those values, remembering that we are all children of God, whether wheelchair bound or walking free, whether black or white, whether stranger in a strange land or long-time resident.

Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780