Last Sunday, the Czech Republic’s Narodní Divadlo (National Theater) had its opening celebrations. The National Theater is a big thing here sort of like America’s Hollywood where actors, actresses and directors are household names. The opening celebration is even broadcast on television by Česká Televize (Czech TV, the national television company).
This year, Narodní Divadlo and Česká Televize have decided to dedicate all of the profits of the day’s long events to one organization: Organizace pro Pomoc Uprchlíkům (Organization for Aid to Refugees). It is the longest running and the most well-known NGO in the Czech Republic helping refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. In addition, it also happens to be where my partner is a lawyer and Head of the Legal Department. So I have a personal connection.
As the High Holy Days begin tomorrow evening, I’ve been thinking a lot about their connection to immigration and Sukkot. My reflection starts with the fact that we too were once refugees. We too were once persecuted and forced into slavery. We too escaped and wandered in a foreign land even though sometimes we yearned for the comfort of the familiar. The sukkah is supposed to remind us of this history. At the same time, we have also been unwelcomed by many, been seen as suspicious and have even been expelled from the many lands we once called home. We have been murdered in mass numbers too many times to count. All of this is to say, that we know the situation of the down-and-out, because we have been there. Likewise, we have in many places overcome it and have a mission to help others in similar situations.
Not only that, but when we were wandering, we entered into a covenantal relationship with G-d, one that has certain expectations for our behavior not only to the One, but more importantly to the humanity around us. The Torah has an oft-repeated refrain, the basic idea of which is: care for the widow, orphan and stranger in your land because you were once foreigners in a foreign land. It is not just a religious duty, it is also a humanitarian one that speaks directly to our history and to the immigration “crisis” we are currently facing across the globe. This concern for the outcast, poor and unfortunate is a freely chosen duty we took on as we wandered in the desert, no longer slaves. We must act.
Tomorrow night we are provided an excellent opportunity to begin the process as this is the New Year. Already in Elul, we started the season of preparation by reflecting on and trying to mend our broken relationships not just with humanity, but also with the planet and our G-d. When Rosh Hashanah arrives tomorrow night, we celebrate not only the birthday of the world, but we also welcome the opportunity to start anew ourselves. Like December 31st in the secular world, Rosh Hashanah opens up many possibilities and the chance for us to change. We spend the Days of Awe continuing the work we began at the start of Elul. Then, we arrive at the most solemn day, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We spend the day fasting (in whichever way we can) to show our sincerity for the wrongs we have done. We continue to reflect on not just what we’ve done wrong and whom we’ve hurt, but also how we can live the next year better. Finally, the day ends and we, in the dark, begin the process of building our sukkah.
When we step into that sukkah, we are reminded of our days in the desert without security, not knowing from where our next meal would come. If our wandering in the desert and our subsequent covenant making with G-d taught us anything, it taught us the importance of not just care and hospitality, but also the need for forgiveness from those around us. After all, we were members of a small community needing each others help daily to survive. Forgiveness is a crucial part of living in community.
That being said, if we imagine Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot concerned about the plight of the immigrant, refugee and asylum seeker among us as well as our religious and humanitarian responsibility for caring, forgiving and hospitality, then the following statements and questions strike me as essential:
- What do you (immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers) need?
- How can we best care for you?
- We are sorry we did not welcome you with open arms, but rather with suspicion, fear and often closed doors and tall walls. We are sorry for our fear of Islam, our concern over you taking away our jobs, our reluctance to trust your experiences and our disregard for your safety in reaching where you hope for a better life.
- Will you accept our apology?
- What do we have to do to make it right in your eyes?
- We welcome you with open arms not just to share in our country but also to join us in our sukkah this year. We would like to show you the same hospitality we strive to show for Sarah, Abraham and other ushpizim as well as our families and friends. For the Czech Jewish community, this seems particularly poignant as there is such a similarity between the Aramaic word for guest, ushpizim, and the Czech word for refugees, uprchlíkům.
Raising funds for Organizace pro Pomoc Uprchlíkům is a start and I thank Narodní Divadlo and Česká Televize for their support both financially and in terms of awareness and education. It is our duty to help others and there is no better time to start this than tomorrow evening. The whole year is before us and there is plenty of work to do.
May we not only have a sweet and good New Year, but also may we make this planet a sweeter and better place to live for all peoples.
L’shanah tova u’metukah!