Senior Cantor Vicky Glikin (Clergy Fellowship alum) of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas shared with us this soul-stirring sermon on Immigration Justice at Shabbat Chukat on July 12, 2019. Cantor Glikin was born in Ukraine and lived in Kiev until moving to the United States at the age of 13.
“We came to the United States where I hoped to build a better, safer life for us. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Instead I watched my baby girl die slowly and painfully just a few months before her second birthday.” These chilling words are part of testimony offered before Congress this week by Yazmin Juarez, a migrant mother from Guatemala. Yazmin and her daughter Mariee crossed the US-Mexico border in 2018. Mariee had been a healthy and happy baby, making the journey to the U.S. southern border without any health problems. Once in the US, Yazmin and Mariee spent a few days in a Customs and Border Protection facility Yazmin referred to as an “icebox” for its cold temperature. She said they were locked in a cage with about 30 other people, sleeping on a concrete floor. After a few days in the “icebox”, Yazmin and Mariee were transferred to a federal detention center in Dilley, TX. A nurse examined Mariee on arrival and found her to be healthy. At the detention center, Yazmin noticed that a number of children with whom they were sharing a room were sick and no effort was made to separate the sick from the healthy or to care for the children who were ill. After a week, baby Mariee started to cough and sneeze. When she was finally seen by a physician’s assistant, Mariee was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and given Tylenol and honey for treatment. Mariee did not get better. Her fever spiked, she began to vomit and have diarrhea, she stopped eating. This time, the little girl was treated with antibiotics for an ear infection, Pedialyte and Vicks VapoRub. Eventually Yazmin’s pleas for a deeper examination and higher level of care were heard, but unfortunately it was too late. Mariee spent six weeks in the hospital with a respiratory infection and eventually died on what was Mother’s Day in Guatemala.
Since December, at least five migrant children have died after being apprehended at the Southern border. A 2 ½ year old boy whose name we do not know who died of pneumonia and a high fever; a 7-year old girl Jakelin Caal Maquin who died from a bacterial infection, an 8-year old boy Felipe Gomez Alonzo who died from flu complications, and a 16-year old boy Juan de Leon Gutierrez whose cause of death was eventually determined to be a brain infection. In the words of Representative Raul Ruiz of California, “The Customs Border Patrol was not created to address the humanitarian needs of families who are legally seeking asylum in our country and therefore the conditions that the women, infants, toddlers and elderly find themselves in are subhuman.” Insufficient and inadequate food, lack of meaningful medical examinations and care, sleeping on cold concrete floor with the light on all night, loud noises interrupting rest times, lack of basic supplies like toothpaste and toothbrushes, diapers and soap, no ability to launder one’s clothes. All of this in facilities that were never meant to be places of long-term inhabitation, but which have turned into these due to new immigration laws and requirements that intentionally slow down the processing of asylum cases.
In this week’s Torah portion we learn of the death of Miriam. The Torah delivers the news of Miriam’s death in an astonishingly terse way, even for the Torah. Perhaps there are no words to describe the pain of this loss. Perhaps the real pain of Miriam’s loss is symbolized by what happens next. “The community was without water.”1 Miriam’s death caused the disappearance of the well that had sustained them. What happened to the well? Where did it go? Midrash Tanchuma2 teaches that the well of water that traveled with the Israelites throughout their journey came to them through the merit of Miriam. And, what had Miriam done to merit this traveling well3, which was not only the source of water, but also of healing4? She had uttered a song by the waters of the Sea of Reeds. Miriam merited the well by leading the Israelites with hand-drums in song and dance after the miraculous Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Miriam merited water for her people because even when freedom from slavery was a distant and unlikely dream, she had the foresight to pack her hand-drums in anticipation of the celebration of her people’s liberation. Miriam dared to hope for a better future.
Once Miriam dies, the people, overcome with grief, dare not hope and dream. They rebel against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron, in turn, lose faith in God and fail to accurately follow God’s instructions for procuring water. A mistake that costs both of these longtime leaders the ability to enter the Land of Israel with their people. This week’s Torah portion is called Chukat, Laws, and one of its messages is that there are grave consequences for those who do not follow the letter of the law.
This should not be surprising. Laws are very important. They help to create order out of chaos. They give a society consisting of many people and diverse interests the ability to co-exist and thrive. We need laws in order to ensure that our society is healthy, that people can live in safety and security, that every individual can reach his or her potential. We need laws to bring order to our lives, to draw nearer to God and to our tradition. Laws are grounding. But, not all laws are good laws. A law can elevate or crush, help or hinder, alleviate or encumber. A law can bring more holiness into the world and create a sense of hope, or it can desecrate and punish indiscriminately.
Moses and Aaron are punished after Miriam’s death and numerous explanations for this punishment are provided over the millennia. But, did Moses and Aaron really deserve not to see the Promised Land? Is it possible to look at Moses and Aaron, indeed all of the Israelites,
not as rebels and law-breakers, but as a human beings who are suffering? When Moses strikes the rock in a manner that upsets God, he is not only God’s servant doing the wrong thing.
He is also a grieving brother. When the Israelites turn against Moses and Aaron, they are not only rebelling against their leadership, they are also processing the death of Miriam and the loss of the source of water and healing, which had sustained them until this point. Moses, Aaron and the Israelites are in pain, but they don’t know how to channel that pain in a productive way. We have been there too. There is the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of feeling unseen or left behind, the pain of an unexpected illness or death. Our inability to channel the pain in a productive way can lead to outcomes that are disastrous for us and the people around us. And, what of the pain we experience when we hear of the conditions in the detention centers, when we learn of the unforgiveable suffering and the tragic deaths of innocent children? It’s impossible not to feel pain. How do we turn this pain into a vehicle for cultivating hope? How do we, like Miriam, in the midst of the darkness begin to pack the hand-drums and the instruments that will eventually become the source of our salvation?
We begin by opening our hearts to the stories of the people who are suffering. We begin by being informed about what’s happening at the border in our own state and the rest of the country. We begin by affirming that while asylum seekers wait for their cases to be heard,
they have the God-given right to live in humane conditions. We begin by affirming the legal right granted by our constitution to all those in peril to be able to seek asylum in the United States. We affirm our expectation that this right is exercised without undue duress to the asylum seekers who come to our country in search of a better future for themselves and their families. They do so as each of our ancestors, or perhaps we ourselves, came to this country seeking a better future. We ground ourselves in the laws, the same way that our ancestors have grounded themselves in laws for generations. And, we also speak out against a system that creates greater suffering for people who are inherently vulnerable and defenseless.
I know first-hand what it’s like to live in a place where you are unwanted and threatened. Growing up in Ukraine, I felt the sting of anti-Semitism and I was intimately familiar with a sense of fear for my wellbeing. And, I also know firsthand the feeling of a warm welcome, the sense of unbridled possibility opening up to me when my family immigrated to the United States on July 4, 1992. I will never forget Independence Day fireworks that illuminated every corner of the sky with a panoply of colors as we drove to our new home from the airport. And, I will never forget asking my uncle why there were so many fireworks in the dark sky and him answering that the fireworks were for me because the United States was happy to have me as one of its own.
Today’s asylum seekers, too, deserve to know that the United States is happy to see them. Not only do they deserve it, but we do too. Our foundational national story is summarized by Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, the “New Colossus”:
“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!”
The condition described in the New Colossus feels like a distant cry from what’s happening on our border today. This is not only tragic for those stuck in the quagmire of our broken immigration system. It is also tragic for our national identity, threatening the very foundation of our country. And, so recognizing this, we pack the hand-drums. We take our cue from the Prophetess Miriam who knew that it’s always darkest before dawn, who packed the instruments even as the promise of liberation was faint and who eventually led our people in dancing and celebration of freedom. We take our cue from the Prophetess Miriam who through her hope merited healing water for her entire community. May we, too, merit the gift of healing water for ourselves and our community.
(Sung excerpt from “The River” by Coco Love Alcorn)
Water heal my body,
Water heal my soul,
When I go down, down to the water,
By the water I feel whole.
2Midrash Biber, Bamidbar 2:1
3BT Shabbat 35a
4Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 22:4