Parasha Shoftim 5772

Balancing Justice and Compassion Last week thousands of young people gathered at Navy Pier in Chicago. The crowd was so large that it spilled off the pier, through the park and along Lake Shore Drive. No, it wasn’t for the Chicago Air Show, which also took place last week.  These were young people, there to take advantage of a deportation deferral program initiated by the government.  Under the program, the federal government will grant a two-year reprieve from deportation to illegal immigrants who are under age 31 and have been in this country since they were children.  Individuals who meet these as well as other requirements would be legally able to work and attend college in the United States for the first time in their lives. Darinco Barron, age 17, was one of these young people. She was brought with her parents from Mexico when she was six years old.  She was interviewed in the Tribune. “I know there are a lot of people without documentation who want to continue their school and work and make a better life for their families,” she said.  And no matter how you may feel about the issue of illegal immigration in general and about this program in particular —  and I know it is controversial  — it’s hard not to sympathize with these young people who want to better themselves and participate in the American dream.  You may not know it, but Israel too, has a problem with illegal immigration. In some ways it is an even more serious problem that we have in the United States, because, as you know, Israel is a much smaller country, much more densely populated, and has less capacity to absorb and integrate illegal immigrants.  At first it was a small problem, but lately it has grown into a much larger one.  Refugees from war torn and starving countries of Africa – Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea, have been making their way across the Sinai desert to Israel over the past six years.  In all of 2006, 3000 Africans came to Israel this way. By 2012, this number had exploded to 3000 a month!  In all, there are now 60,000 illegal African immigrants concentrated in a neighborhood near the bus station in Tel-Aviv.  A social worker describes the experience of her client this way: “One of my clients, a woman from Sudan, cried as she described how she was imprisoned, beaten, burned and raped in Sudan by military officials.  She fled first to Egypt where she was beaten by Bedouin in the Sinai desert, then ducked gunfire from Egyptian border guards until she finally reached safety in Israel.  Since she did not receive adequate medical assistance upon entering Israel, she is now in pain, depressed and vulnerable.” As the African neighborhood in Tel-Aviv has grown, so have the problems related to poverty, trauma, displacement and over-crowding. Crime is on the rise, and resentment is growing among Israelis. There have been anti-African riots by those who live in neighborhoods near the refugees, and the kind of blind hatred directed toward them that we Jews know all too well.  No one knows what to do. The Tel Aviv Chief of Police has suggested that Israel make it legal for these refugees to work.  Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai suggested that Israel erect detention camps along its Southern Border and deport the Africans in an orderly and humane way.  The idea of Israel concentrating people in camps for the purpose of deportation is an irony that was not lost on anyone. What does the Torah teach us about how to deal with this problem?  This week in our Torah reading we read that the Jewish people should pursue “Justice”.  Israel is a country which was established in the hope that the highest values and ideals of the Torah can be put into practice.  After 2000 years of living among other nations, the Jewish people, under Jewish sovereignty, with Jewish laws, have an opportunity to build a just society where the principals of Torah can be lived. It says in the Torah 36 times – “You shall be kind to the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”  The most vulnerable people among us are the very ones the Torah tells us that we should protect. How can Israel simply expel them? Where would they go? Who would take them?   But can Israel afford to keep them?  These are people who do not speak Hebrew, who have no job skills, who are traumatized and in need of social services.  They are also not Jewish.  If Israel is to remain a Jewish state, then the overwhelming majority of the population must be Jewish.  If Israel takes in refugees without end, when does the very nature of the Jewish state become compromised?   Is there a limit to the amount of help that we can give someone?  It turns out, that there is an answer to the question of how much we are obligated to help others. Our Torah reading for this week says that each and every person must give ten percent of whatever they earn to charity. But, the Talmud adds that a person cannot give more than twenty percent. Why? The rabbis were concerned that a person would give too much, and therefore be in need of charity themselves. We are obligated to help, but not to the extent that we will irreparably harm ourselves.  What is true for individuals must also be true for nations. Our Torah reading for this week opens with the words, “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” Justice, according to many, means doing everything we could to expel people living in our countries illegally. Upholding the rule of law, I know, is important.  Failure to enforce laws is in itself a form of injustice, and breeds cynicism and a lack of respect for the rule of law. But we also know that even G-d does not rule the world with complete justice.  Our sages say that if G-d did so, the world would not have the merit to even exist. Instead, G-d balances that justice with compassion.  We must as well. As we can see, acting “justly” is not always a simple matter.  The Torah recognizes that too. It tells us that if a matter is too baffling for us, we should take it to our wise men and women for advice.  In our age of democracy, however, it is up to all of us to contribute to the solution. May we find the proper balance between justice and compassion as we grapple with the issue of illegal immigration, both here in the United States and in Israel.