An ill wind of anti-immigrant bigotry is currently blowing across our nation, state, and city. Popular candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have publicly made outrageous, hateful statements, painting all refugees as rapists and terrorists — and seen their poll numbers rise in response. Here in Idaho, we are witnessing a wave of nativist rhetoric and deeds. Locally, a landlord couple, who proudly overlaid their Facebook profile picture with a Confederate flag, evicted over 100 of their refugee tenant families with just 30 days notice. A serious mayoral candidate equated refugees with blight. And last week, an anti-immigration rally at the Statehouse wallowed in xenophobia.
Amidst such ugliness, it is worth noting that the father and mother of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike — Abraham and Sarah — were both refugees, and friends to all exiles who followed in their footsteps.
As Torah tells the story, Abraham and Sarah, like countless immigrants over the ensuing centuries, left their familiar home for a distant Promised Land. Over the course of their journey, they met with numerous hardships along the way: unfriendly neighbors, war and strife, famine and hunger.
Their struggles could have hardened their hearts. But instead—and as an inspiration to us, their spiritual children — their suffering deepened their compassion.
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In Genesis 18, Abraham is sitting outside the family tent in the heat of a sweltering desert day when he spies three strangers in the distance. He runs out to greet them, bows respectfully, and declares: “Do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” Then he and Sarah jointly prepare a feast for their guests, waiting on them with extraordinary generosity. Later, these strangers turn out to be angels. But Abraham and Sarah do not recognize this at the time; as far as they know, they are simply extending their hospitality to fellow refugees in need of loving kindness. Having been homeless sojourners themselves, their hearts — and their deeds — go out to those who now share that plight.
As Americans, we share this experience. We are a nation of immigrants. Some have come here by choice, others — African-American slaves — by coercion. But all of us, with the sole exception of Native Americans, are the descendants of exiles. We must never forget that experience, or take for granted the comforts of safety and security. I hope and pray that we, like, Abraham and Sarah, will speak — and act — on behalf of those who follow in our footsteps. Let us stand up to xenophobia and affirm the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faith perspectives.