By Rabbi Joshua Waxman
The beginning of this week’s portion, Vayetzei, finds our forefather Jacob fleeing for his life. Fearful of his brother Esau’s threats of violence, Jacob runs away from the only home he has ever known, seeking safety with his relatives in Haran.
Tired, alone and afraid, Jacob stops as the sun is setting and takes a stone to serve as his pillow as he prepares to spend the night alone exposed to the elements.
Or not quite alone: During the night, Jacob has a dream of a stairway planted in the earth with its head reaching toward the heavens and angels ascending and descending. God, too, is part of Jacob’s vision and makes a promise to the young Jacob, a promise of protection and enduring presence: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
When Jacob wakes up he is reassured and reinvigorated by God’s promise and declares, “How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
For generations of Jews who feared for their lives and fled persecution in the places they lived, America represented those same hopes that Jacob sought — protection, refuge and opportunity. It was the goldene medina, the place of safety and prosperity … the gate of heaven.
This is not overblown rhetoric: In my study I have a framed greeting card from the beginning of the 20th century depicting a poor Jewish immigrant family being greeted at the shores of America by Lady Liberty in a flowing gown of stars and stripes. She holds a key and is beckoning them through a doorway she has unlocked, and the caption below contains the Hebrew words from Psalm 118, “Open for me the gates of righteousness.”
Jacob’s experience of fleeing with just the clothes on his back and seeking refuge is one that is part of the personal histories of many American Jewish families, including my own, and it would be appropriate to share these stories around the Thanksgiving table — expressing gratitude for the blessings of this country as so many prior generations have done dating to the first Thanksgiving.
But as we do, we need to consider our responsibilities to the Jacobs of today who are trying to make their way to this country, seeking a place of safety and shelter. They come from Syria, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of Congo and so many other places of danger, oppression and hopelessness.
They bear names that may sound unfamiliar to us, but at root they are Jacob — scared to live in the place of their birth, willing to risk a dangerous and uncertain journey, seeking refuge, feeling isolated and alone.
When Jacob reached Haran, he had no standing as an outsider and faced mistreatment and exploitation in his uncle Laban’s house — an all-too-familiar story for undocumented immigrants who make their way to the United States but are forced to live in the shadows, vulnerable and afraid. Aware of the plight of the refugee, our tradition repeatedly commands us to care for the stranger, to welcome them and protect them.
This command is rooted in our own experience as defenseless outsiders in Egypt: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Our more recent and tragic history has also borne out the moral imperative of providing a place for those who seek refuge and safety, as well as the dangers of a nativist attitude that stigmatizes outsiders as “the other” and seeks to keep the gates of righteousness barred.
The rabbis teach that all of us have the capacity and obligation to model for one another the divine qualities that God embodies, and so make them manifest in the world (Sotah 14a). When we reach out in help and support toward the refugee and the undocumented immigrant, we not only fulfill the ethical obligation to help the stranger that the Torah commands, we also serve as a concrete example of God’s loving and abiding presence in the face of hardship and despair.
This Thanksgiving, let us all share in our gratitude for the gifts of this great country. Let us resolve to offer a light of welcome and hope for those in danger. And let us help new generations of immigrants proclaim Jacob’s words, as our ancestors did before us: “How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the rabbi of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington and serves as president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.