This Passover: 4 Children In Memory Of 24,000 Syrian Children

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Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, rescued after an airstrike by Syrian or Russian aircraft on his town in Syria in August, 2016.

Last night, as I am sure you know, the United States struck a Syrian airbase. The strike was in response to a deadly sarin gas attack by the Syrians on a city in the northern part of their country that killed 86 people, including 27 children. Since the violence in Syria began in 2011, 207,000 civilians have been killed – 24,000 of them children – including little Omran Daqneesh’s (pictured above) 10-year-old brother, Ali. While Omran survived, the trauma he experienced shattered his little life.

No matter where we stand on last night’s military strike, we can all agree that the actions of the Syrian government and its supporters and the slaughter of innocents is reprehensible. As Jews, the plight of those like little Omran, who are brutally oppressed by their government, is a plight we can too easily identify with. As we prepare for Passover in just a few days, when we will read about our own ancestors fleeing from Pharaoh, the Haggadah reminds us that the plight of those attempting to flee the violence of Syria has been our plight as well.

In memory of the 24,000 children who have been killed in Syria, in honor of Omran and as a reminder to our children and grandchildren, I ask that you consider incorporating “The Four Children” from Next Year In A Just World, a Haggadah prepared by American Jewish World Service.

At Passover each year, we read the story of our ancestors’ pursuit of liberation from oppression. When confronting this history, how do we answer our children when they ask us how to pursue justice in our time?

What does the activist child ask?
“The Torah tells me, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ but how can I pursue justice?”

Empower her always to seek pathways to advocate for the vulnerable. As Proverbs teaches, “Speak up for the mute, for the rights of the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

What does the skeptical child ask?
“How can I solve problems of such enormity?”

Encourage him by explaining that he need not solve the problems, he must only do what he is capable of doing. As we read in Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

What does the indifferent child say?
“It’s not my responsibility.”

Persuade her that responsibility cannot be shirked. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

And the uninformed child who does not know how to ask …

Prompt him to see himself as an inheritor of our people’s legacy. As it says in Deuteronomy, “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

At this season of liberation, let us work toward the liberation of all people.

Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a very meaningful Passover.



Strong Borders and Compassionate Hearts: Jewish Views on Immigration, Refugees and Asylum Seekers


Rabbi Isaac Kook, one of the most important rabbis of the early 20th century, insisted that in order to truly love Israel, we must love, respect and honor all of humanity. Rav Kook taught that the nation of Israel, unlike any other nation, has the ability to provide everyone, not just Jews, with “a life filled with joy.” His belief reflects core Jewish values that have been part of our tradition for centuries. The Torah teaches:
When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

The Torah demands that if one turns to us for refuge we provide them with a safe haven:

Don’t turn in a slave to his master, when he flees to you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst, in the place he chooses in one of your gates as suits him; don’t oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:16)

The obligation to care for, love and shelter everyone is so central to Judaism that anyone who harms those in need faces the wrath of God: “Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Judaism’s insistence that we welcome anyone in need with open arms has encouraged us, as a people, to support the rights of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Over the centuries, as we have fled from those who have tried to destroy us, we have been blessed by those who were willing to let us in and give us a new beginning. At the same time, we have been turned away and suffered tremendously because of this. As Americans, we are blessed to live in a nation that shares our desire to protect those less fortunate than we are.

As the world continues to be shattered by terror committed by Islamic extremists, most recently in France, Israel and just this morning in Mali, many in the United States are struggling with how to help those seeking refuge without putting ourselves in danger. While we are familiar with Judaism’s insistence that we help the stranger, we fail to realize that, despite our ancestors being slaves in Egypt, our tradition teaches us not to be foolish and naïve. There are dangerous people out there who want to do us harm. This is why Rashi, the great medieval Jewish scholar, teaches us that:

The mighty men of Israel would dwell in the border towns and lock the frontier so no enemies could enter; it was as if it (the border) were closed with locks and bars of iron and brass.

The Shulchan Arukh, written in the 16th century and remaining one of the most widely consulted Jewish legal codes, warns that enemies lurk out there who seek to cross our borders and undermine our society. Because of this, the Shulchan Arukh insists that those who live in a city on a border are obligated to violate Shabbat in order to defend the border from outsiders who seek to “take over the city and proceed from there to conquer the land.” For Jewish communities outside the land of Israel, it’s not possible to defend actual borders. In an effort to protect the wellbeing of their communities over the centuries, some Jewish leaders developed the now obsolete concept of chezkat hayishuv, a residence permit that was required by anyone who sought to live within a specific Jewish community. Communities that required residency permits had the power to deny entry to anyone who had the potential to cause them harm. In the State of Israel today, guarding Israel’s borders and closely monitoring who enters the country is paramount to the Jewish State’s survival.
As American Jews, we know that many of us would not be here today were it not for this country’s willingness to welcome immigrants and refugees. Our nation’s desire to welcome those who truly want and need to come to our shores and our Jewish obligation to help the stranger urge us to speak up in favor of welcoming refugees from Syria. At the same time, however, we can’t overlook our tradition’s reminder that not everyone who seeks to cross our borders has good intentions. Judaism pleads with us to open our borders to those who truly need us while, at the same time, doing everything in our power to ensure that the “locks and bars of iron and brass” that Rashi referred to centuries ago continue to be in place to protect us from those who seek “to conquer the land.” This is no easy task. May our national leaders find a way to balance the scales, staying true to the welcoming nature of our country while protecting us from those who seek our demise.

May this Shabbat bring much needed peace to the world. Shabbat Shalom to each of you.