Not Quite at Home: Finding a Balance between Security and Compassion

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A couple of days ago I was in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is a very happy place to me because during World War II, unlike other countries in Nazi-Occupied Europe, the Jewish community was mostly saved from extermination. What was the difference in Denmark? The King himself refused to mistreat his Jewish citizens, wearing the Yellow Star himself. And when the orders for deportations came in, Christians smuggled their Jewish neighbors to safety in Sweden.

It is said that some Christians went to their pastor and asked, now that the Nazis are demanding we turn in the Jews, what should we do? Save them? Betray them? Or nothing. The pastor answered: “I cannot tell you what to do I can only ask you who you are. When you understand who you are you then will know what to do.”

Last Shabbat I stood with thirty members of Temple Sholom at the Berlin memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. This memorial is a maze. It is designed to make one feel lost. As the group gathered, on that late Saturday afternoon, I reminded them of what Professor Dumbledore told Harry when he entered the maze to find the golden trophy: “People change in the maze. Oh find the cup if you can. But be very wary, you might just lose yourself along the way.” So much of Europe lost themselves in the moral maze of the 1930s and 40s. Except for the Danes.

Two minutes after sharing this insight the news of Pittsburgh arrived. How ironic to be in the middle of Berlin, the epicenter of the Holocaust, and hear about a horrific act of murder against praying Jews in Pittsburgh. The irony is not easily assimilated.

The question before us now, as we gather in worship is not merely to consider who we are: I believe all of us are righteous and compassionate people who want to do the right thing. The question is how we balance our care for others with our own security concerns?

Do we make our synagogue a fortress?

Do we refrain from supporting refugees because of backlash?

Do we turn inward or continue to treat the stranger with compassion, remembering that we were strangers in the land of Egypt?

This week’s Torah portion speaks of Abraham calling himself a ger toshav, a stranger and a resident. That’s a good description of a Jew today. We are not at home and we are at home. We are not quite at home. We belong but we do not belong. We are rooted and uprooted. The truth of course is more complicated. It is not just the Jews. All Americans — actually all citizens of the world — belong but do not belong. We all face discrimination of one kind. We should all feel as secure as possible and we should all be careful and protective. We should also remember to care for those less secure and less protected.

The late Abraham Joshua Heschel put it succinctly: “In a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.”

The tragedy of Pittsburgh was the act of one horrible man but the culture for the rise of antisemitism in our country is directly a result of the simmering hatred of the other — and yes Jews — that is usually just below the surface but of course sometimes explicit.
I believe the there needs to be a reckoning upon those who encourage such hatred or stand by with the power to quash and do not. To quote Professor Dumbledore again: “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

It is easy to feel victimized and part of the mob. It is easy to blame our defeats on others. It is easy to step on the less fortunate.

It is hard to take care of yourself and your community while at the same time to work for social justice for all and an opportunity for freedom in this glorious land.

To be a stranger and a resident does not mean we are not citizens. It does mean that we don’t forget who we are.

A few days ago in Berlin I went into the New Synagogue, built in the middle of the 19th century as a testament to Jews having arrived for good in Germany. It is a monument of citizenship.

Upstairs there is an exhibit that just opened about the 17000 Jews who were expelled from Germany and dumped into Poland exactly 80 years ago. My mother was one of them. She was a German citizen. Her father had fought in World War I for Germany. And yet, with the stroke of a pen she was stateless.

My friends, I don’t wish to scare you but one thing I have learned in this world is that nothing is permanent, certain or secure. We can all find ourselves in a maze of fear and moral confusion. At that moment — at this moment — we have a choice. I cannot tell you what to do at such a time but I can ask you a question: who are you? When you discover who you are, you will know what to do.

About the Author

Edwin Goldberg is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. He served as the coordinating editor of the new Reform Jewish machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, and has published many books in the field of Jewish texts and their application to the modern world. His most recent book is Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, a commentary on the new machzor. He holds a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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