“You will not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
On Wednesday night, we will sit down at our seder tables and read the story of Passover. As we do so, we will remember that our ancestors, Jacob, his sons, and their families sought relief from a famine in the land of Israel by immigrating to the land of Egypt. Thankfully, Jacob and his family had a powerful sponsor in Egypt, Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons.  As we read from the Haggadah, we are not simply supposed to remember our ancestor’s journey into Egypt. We are also expected to have empathy for those seeking a safe haven among us, for we “were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
As the story of Passover teaches us, Egypt, the place that was supposed to be our safe haven, became a place of bondage for us. We were stripped of our freedoms and tormented by Pharaoh. We yearned for liberation and found it only by fleeing Pharaoh’s cruelty. Somehow, with great courage, Moses’ leadership, and God’s help, we managed to cross a daunting natural border: the Red Sea. Subsequently, we wandered in the desert for 40 years until finally reaching our ultimate safe haven: Israel. 
As we settled in our Promised Land, we were commanded to “befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19) This command still applies to us today. And it is not simply our exodus from Egypt that should move our hearts to show compassion to those seeking refuge among us. We were slaves in Egypt and for so many of us, much more recently, we were oppressed in other foreign lands. In the late 1800’s, as a young child, my own great-grandmother was sent alone from eastern Europe to America by her grandparents. They hoped that the arduous trip across the Atlantic Ocean in the hull of a crowded, dirty ship would provide her with a life of security, a life they couldn’t provide her in Europe. A distant relative sponsored my great-grandmother’s journey and employed her as a housekeeper upon her arrival. 
The trip across the ocean was undoubtedly frightening for my great-grandmother, a child all by herself. Arriving in America, beginning a new life, a stranger in the strange land of America must have been overwhelming. There are no pictures of my great-grandmother’s journey, no pictures of her as a young immigrant in the US. Until this week, I could only imagine the fear in her eyes as she embarked on her own personal exodus, a journey that was both liberating and tortuous.
On Monday, while traveling with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in Mexico, I got a glimpse of what I imagine my great-grandmother’s young eyes looked like as she found herself alone on a ship, at the port of entry in New York City, on the busy urban streets of America, a stranger in a strange land. I got this glimpse as I looked into the eyes of a little Mexican boy in a migrant shelter in Tijuana. This little boy, lucky enough to be with his mother and older sister, was fleeing the violence of drug cartels and crushing poverty in his hometown. When one of my colleagues asked his mother in Spanish what we could do for her, she begged us to take her son back with us to America, to give him a safe haven. He looked up at me and the fear in his eyes was palpable. Even in his own country, he was a stranger in a strange land. His mother explained to us how she has attempted to enter the US legally, to follow the rules and use the online tools set up by our government to make it possible for her to seek asylum here. But the rules are complicated, and the technology is seriously flawed. And so, she and her children wait in a dirty, crowded shelter in Tijuana – a shelter much like the one that burned in Mexico this week, killing almost 40 people. As she waits, she is harassed by smugglers who regularly attempt to extort her, promising freedom for her children for tremendous amounts of money, money she does not have.
Not only are we commanded not to oppress the stranger, we are also commanded to “love the stranger as we do ourselves, because we were strangers in the land of the Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) Seeing this little boy’s eyes, listening to his mother’s story, watching the pain on his sister’s face, I couldn’t help but think of my great-grandmother and so many other relatives of mine who wanted nothing more than safety in a far-off land. I couldn’t help but think about our ancestors putting everything on the line to flee the perils of Egypt. Witnessing this Mexican family’s anguish, I felt so much love and compassion for them. At the same time, I felt so much frustration as I was witnessing firsthand three souls caught up in an Egypt with multiple Pharaohs, including the cartels, smugglers, the Mexican government, and a US immigration system that is so broken and overwhelmed. In this Egypt, there is no Moses leading the way and, therefore, the Red Sea is not parting. They are stuck. Passover is coming. And we must not oppress the stranger because we were strangers.
Tonight at services, we will be joined by Lisette Vida, a Ramat Shalom member and a retired Senior Border Patrol Agent, who will help guide us through US immigration policy. There are no quick and easy solutions to help end the oppression of the little boy, his family, and thousands of others seeking refuge at our border. This does not mean, however, that we are free to walk away from this crisis. Judaism, especially through the holiday of Passover, teaches us that our experience in Egypt, our own oppression, requires us to stand up for those seeking liberation right now. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), a tremendous Jewish scholar from Spain, taught us that one who oppresses the stranger and one who witnesses this oppression and remains silent, they have the same status.
As one who has just returned from the US-Mexico border and witnessed the oppression, I will not remain silent. Again, there are no easy solutions. Protecting our borders is imperative but having empathy for the oppressed is not only a Jewish value, it is part of the foundation of our country: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” While some of us are quick to blame certain politicians and political parties, what I learned at the border is that the immigration crisis transcends whatever side of the aisle you call home. Additionally, the crisis transcends American politics. Other governments must own their role in the crisis. While there are no easy solutions, our faith condemns those who fail to address the crisis. Our Passover seder reminds us where we have come from, what we have experienced, and how we cannot rest until there are no strangers in strange lands and everyone gets a chance to cross the Red Sea safely.
This Passover, when you sit at your seder, I ask that mention the little Mexican boy with so much fear in his eyes. He and his mother and sister deserve our love and compassion. They are reminders of where we have come from and that many are still left behind in the shadow of Pharaoh.

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