We live in seemingly dark times, which is why more than ever, we need to bring light into our world.
It is easy to be afraid of the dark, to fear things that go bump in the night, because we can't see our surroundings. Instead, our imagination takes over so that everything around us is transformed into "danger." Fear is a natural response to danger, and we have a primal urge to protect our ourselves and our families from the dangers we can see, and from those hidden by the dark.
Terrorism spreads darkness in our world.
Terror attacks do more than kill people. The despicable horror of the acts themselves, in combination with the stealth that sometimes makes them difficult to anticipate (and therefore prevent), gets inside of our heads and feeds the darkest part of our imaginations. When we begin to act out of fear rather than out of principle, we begin to forget who we are.
We begin to accept the darkness.
Consider the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness. Never mind that with their own eyes they saw the Ten Plagues that brought Egypt to its knees. Never mind that they witnessed the parting of the Sea and walked through on dry land, and then saw the waters close over Pharaoh's chariots. Never mind that they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and felt the ground shake, and heard with their own ears the voice of God speak from on high. The fear felt by the Israelites was so profound that despite the horrors they knew of Egyptian slavery, and the miracles they personally witnessed, they could not embrace the Promise of a new future. Instead, they complained and rebelled over and over again. They began to accept the darkness. The generation that was freed from Egypt would not, could not, reach the Promised Land. Over forty years of wandering, a new generation needed to be born and to grow up, a generation that was not enslaved by their fear.
Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to violence. Violence leads to fear.
It takes courage to break this cycle, courage and faith. We must be brave enough to take risks in the face of our fear, and have faith that we can ultimately prevail.
Since the attacks in Paris last week, a new wave of fear is sweeping through the West. Here in the United States, this has been expressed as a backlash against accepting Syrian refugees. Why? Because we are afraid that cells of sleeper terrorists might be embedded among them.
We are beginning to accept the dark.
More than thirty sitting governors said that no Syrian refugees will be welcome in their states. The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday to freeze any further Syrian refugees from being granted asylum until some time in the future when the refugee resettlement program can be reevaluated (whatever that means). In my own neighborhood, in Western New York, where for years we have helped refugee populations from all over the world, some of our political leaders now want to close the gates and the county legislature is even considering a public referendum on whether or not to admit any refugees fleeing from Syria.
They are beginning to accept the dark.
We Jews know what happens when refugees are turned away. We know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. Our Jewish values teach us to welcome the stranger, and to care for the most vulnerable in society. This principle is so important that it is repeated no fewer than thirty-three times in the Torah. It is at the heart of who we are:
We are commanded to bring light into the darkness.
Closing our borders to refugees plays right into the hands of the terrorists. It is exactly the kind of response they are hoping for, because it creates a sense of alienation and resentment among those who are desperate for relief. By closing our borders, we not only reject our own values and principles, but we turn the very people who need us against us. We are helping the terrorists to create a new fertile recruiting ground for future rounds of violence.
All of the evidence suggests that there is no real danger to the United States from refugees, because each candidate for asylum is rigorously vetted through a two to three year process. According to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ("They Are Us," Nov. 19, 2015) of the 785,000 refugees admitted the States since 9/11 only three have been arrested on charges related to terrorism (and apparently they were out of the country). Kristof goes on to note that embedding a terrorist in the refugee population is far more difficult and time consuming than just sending them over on student visas, or as tourists from Europe (where they may already have citizenship). He asked pointedly if we should close our borders to foreign students and tourists?
As Jews we are commanded to bring light into the darkness. As Americans, immigration is central to our history and to the ethos of our great nation. Providing safety to those who flee oppression is a cornerstone of who we aspire to be.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Let us fight terror not with fear but with strength and with faith. Let us fight terror not only with weapons of war, but with ideas and values. Let us remember who we are and live by the principles that make us great. Let us demonstrate to those who have suffered horribly and have fled for their very lives, that here things are different, that the United States is truly a land with justice and liberty for all.
Let us fight darkness not with more darkness, but with light.
The story is legendary, and seemingly simple. Cain and Abel are brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They offer sacrifices to God, but because Abel offers his best to God and Cain does not, God only accepts Abel's sacrifice. In a fit of anger or jealousy (we're not sure which) Cain kills his brother and then lies to God about it, famously asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9)
Look more closely at the story, however, and another frame emerges. "In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock." (Genesis 4:3-4)
God doesn't ask for a sacrifice, but after a period of time, Cain decides to show some gratitude and respect. There are no instructions, there is no established practice of rights and wrongs, just the idea - and Cain decides to invent a new thing we now call 'offering a sacrifice.' Abel, possibly seeing what Cain is doing is moved to do the same, but improves upon Cain's idea by choosing to offer not just anything, but his very best.
I can imagine Cain's indignation. It was his idea! Abel stole it and then beat Cain at his own game!
God speaks directly to Cain, to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. If Cain tries again and offers his best, then God will accept his sacrifice as well, but, if he instead chooses to not do his best, then "sin will crouch at the door" (Gen. 4:7).
Perhaps Cain was too upset, but regardless of his reason, he ignores God's advice. Instead of making a second, better offering (not to be confused with offering his second-best), he chose to kill his brother. In other words, he put the blame on his brother, not on himself, and acted to eliminate his competition. He was wrong, even if we can sympathize with his pain, and he paid a terrible price..
We can derive two lessons from this. First, life is not a race, and success is predicated, at least in part, on learning from each other. We don't need to be first to succeed. Second, and I think more importantly, we have the ability to choose how we respond to adversity. We can do as Cain did, and blame (or even harm) others when we don't bring our best; or we can learn from Cain's tragic mistake and strive to always bring our best.
Reading this story seemed strangely and uncomfortably familiar. Far too many of us act more like Cain than Abel, and this seems especially true in politics - where it is common practice to be say little and do less, and make sure to blame the other guy (or gal) for what is wrong in the world. Imagine what would happen if, in our personal lives and in our political discourse, we all tried to be less like Cain and more like Abel.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras