Ki Tetze 5774: A Safe Home for Escaped Slaves and Refugees

In a summer dominated by the battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and also between Russian-backed separatists and the government in Eastern Ukraine, the violent expansion of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, and by racial unrest here in America, one dramatic story that received less attention in the Jewish community at least was the crisis of refugee children escaping from violence in Central America. With so much upheaval and sorrow in the world, who can spare additional attention on what is occurring south of the border? Indeed, this story has pretty much disappeared from the news. And yet, over 37,000 unaccompanied minors have been released into the care of guardians in the United States pending a legal process that could still result in their be returned to their countries of origin. What should we make of this? 

When it comes to handling refugees crises, simple statements are seldom accurate. Every action has a consequence, and our government must be cautious not to encourage more people to flee from one dangerous situation into another dangerous situation, with many perils on the path to America. Still, one wonders why a nation of our size and affluence would not be capable of absorbing such desperate and blameless refugees. After all, Jordan has absorbed over two million Syrian refugees. Is the United States really incapable of welcoming these children? What does the Torah have to say about this?

While our portion does not speak specifically about refugees, it does include a two-sentence section that speaks about runaway slaves: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” The Rabbis consider this to be somewhat obvious, and so they expand the meaning. The slave in question need not be Jewish—s/he might even be a Canaanite slave held by a Jewish master abroad, who has escaped to Israel. The Jewish community must protect the Canaanite slave in Israel, and not expel him or her to the Jewish master abroad. Rambam notes the proximity of this law to the rules about admitting Edomites and Egyptians into the people of Israel, and says that such refugees must be welcomed into the land.

In a remarkable Midrash from Pesikta Rabbati for Shabbat Nahamu, God admits guilt for violating this very commandment (and several others), in returning Israel as slaves to other nations of the world (through the destruction and exile). God has to repent, as it were, for mistreating Israel. But Israel itself must repent for its treatment of other refugees. The Torah frequently commands Israel not to oppress the stranger, and even to love the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Jewish people can be proud of its past work in refugee resettlement, especially among our own refugees after the Shoah, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and following many other crises in Africa, the Islamic world and Latin America. Still, we learn from the portion the importance of helping refugees from other nations as well. That is why I am proud of the work of HIAS, an organization originally established to help “Hebrew Immigrants,” which has become the Jewish community’s lead organization in refugee relief efforts. My good friend Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is Vice-President for Community Engagement, and I hope with her help to learn more and do more for refugees in our country and around the world in the coming year. I enourage you to learn more about these issues, so that we will take from this week not only a mandate to advocate justice even in times of war, but also to help the people whose lives have been disrupted and turn to us for help.

דברים פרק כג 

  (טז)   לֹא תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדֹנָיו אֲשֶׁר יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו:

  (יז)   עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב לוֹ לֹא תּוֹנֶנּוּ:

רמב”ם הלכות עבדים פרק ח הלכה יא 

 עבד זה שברח לארץ הרי הוא גר צדק והוסיף לו הכתוב אזהרה אחרת למי שמאנה  אותו מפני שהוא שפל רוח יותר מן הגר וצוה עליו הכתוב שנאמר עמך ישב בקרבך  באחד שעריך בטוב לו לא תוננו זו אף הוניית דברים, נמצאת למד שהמאנה את הגר  הזה עובר בשלשה לאוין משום ולא תונו איש את עמיתו ומשום וגר לא תונה ומשום לא  תוננו וכן עובר משום ולא תלחצנו כמו שביארנו בענין הונייה.

פסיקתא רבתי (איש שלום) פיסקא ל – נחמו נחמו ד”ה דבר אחר אמר

מיד אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא עלי לנחם את ירושלים שכך כתבתי שלם ישלם המבעיר את הבערה (שמות כ”ב ה’), אני היצתיה באש שנאמר ממרום שלח אש (איכה א’ י”ג) אני מנחם אותה שנאמר ואני אהיה לה נאם ה’ חומת אש סביב וגו’ (זכריה ב’ ט’), אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אני כתבתי בתורה לא תסגיר עבד אל אדוניו (דברים כ”ג ט”ז) ואני מסרתים ביד אומות העולם שנאמר אם לא כי צורם מכרם וה’ הסגירם (שם /דברים/ ל”ב ל’), אני כתבתי לא תכלה פאת שדך לקצור (ויקרא י”ט ט’) ואני כיליתי חמתי שנאמר כלה ה’ חמתו (איכה ד’ י”א), ואלמלא בעונות (שנחסרים) [שנמסרים] אין כל בריה יכולה להם לישראל.

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