Shabbat Shalom! I want to begin by sharing two stories from this week’s news that relate to the Torah reading from Chukat in the book of Numbers. First, we will examine the contemporary examples, and then then we will look at the Torah reading.
Before Game three of the NBA Finals this week, San Antonio native Sebastien de la Cruz, a celebrated competitor in last year’s America’s Got Talent, sang the national anthem. He was wearing a mariachi outfit, but, after all, 63% of San Antonio citizens are Latino. Some of the immediate responses on twitter to Sebastien’s appearance were full of prejudice and racism, exemplified by this one: “This kid is Mexican - why is he singing the national anthem?” That user added the twitter hashtags: #yournotamerican #gohome.” Because of this reaction, the San Antonio Spurs asked Sebastien to sing the National anthem again last night before Game 4. On Good Morning America on ABC this morning, Sebastien responded to his detractors with an incredible amount of class. He said, “To the people that do have hatred in their hearts, I just want to tell them that they should think before they say things.”
A second story from the news this week comes from Israel. Times of Israel reported the story of Nadrah, a four-year old girl from Syria whose heart had only a single ventricle. It wasn’t expected that she would survive past her 18th birthday. She received surgery and follow-up treatment in Israel. Her 8 month pregnant mother had accompanied her. This opportunity for treatment was made possible by Shevet Achim, an Israel-based Christian organization that has been arranging for Palestinian, Jordanian, Kurdish and now Syrian children to come to Israel for almost two decades to undergo life-saving heart surgery.
Among Nadrah’s visitors at the hospital was Meir Hazan, a Syrian Jew who left his home at the age of 17. He introduced himself to Nadrah and her mother Raha as “Abu Salim,” his name from his childhood. They were afraid that he was one of Bashar Assad’s intelligence agents looking for them. Hazan explained that he was, simply, a native Syrian Jew who left for greater freedom in Israel. Hazan spoke later about his visit with Nadrah: “She told me, ‘In Syria people are slaughtering each other, but you came here to visit another Syrian you don’t know, and there is no hatred in your eyes.’”
Hazan had initially wanted to take the family for a drive to a local Syrian restaurant, but Nadrah’s health wouldn’t allow it. Luckily, in the Syrian tradition, he had prepared kubbeh, tabbouleh, pickled vegetables and other Syrian foods for them, and set them out in the hospital room. . The success of Nadrah’s experience has opened up the possibility for other Syrian children needing heart surgery to come to Israel in the future.
And meanwhile, in Syria, it is likely that any group that the United States or any other nation would back would eventually commit some minor or major atrocity or massacre against another group or village, be it Christian or Muslim.
The Torah reading for this week described the request of the Israelites to peacefully pass through the territory of the Edomites. They told their story of oppression and their flight to freedom in their plea to the people of Edom. The Israelites promised to pay for any natural resources they might use. The Edomites, however, responded with verbal refusals at first, and, finally, by sending out an army to be sure that the Israelites would take another route.
This passage reminds me of the closed hearts of those who tweeted hateful statements about Sebastien de la Cruz.
It makes me think of the ill-fated journey of the St. Louis, the ship with over 938 Jewish passengers on board on its 1939 voyage. Bound for Havana, Cuba, the St. Louis arrived at its destination, but the 908 passengers who had no valid American or Cuban visas or passports were not allowed to disembark. Later, the ship set sail for Miami and was turned away by the United States Coast Guard. All the passengers returned to Europe, receiving permission to settle in a variety of countries.
The response of the Edomites can relate to times when people close their hearts towards fellow human beings who are in need of help, or support, or refuge.
The Edomite approach calls to mind times when individuals or groups judge others only through their own eyes, rather than trying to empathize with those whom they judge in order to truly understand their situation.
Those who supported Sebastien de la Cruz against an onslaught of hatred, and everyone who helped Nadrah from Syria through her experience of healing and hope, exemplify the best of the human spirit – as expressed by the reading in our prayerbook:
“May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship. May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture. May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity. May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or straying feet. May it be too high to admit complacency, selfishness and harshness.”
And may the words of Torah that we read tonight inspire us, as members of the human family, to keep our attitudes and our hearts open to all who would journey our way.