Like many of you, the brutal attack on innocent civilians in Paris last Saturday left me both heartsick and angry. There is nothing virtuous in act of sheer hatred and blind violence, nothing noble in slaughtering people in order to sow fear and to try to dominate the life and spirit of another human being. There is no honor in a legacy of death and destruction. The best within us calls on us all to work for justice and peace and to refuse to descend to the level of the desperate and confused. While defending the innocent, we stand with those who have suffered, in Paris and elsewhere in the world, and work for a world in which such acts of violence are abhorred and rare.
What we must not do is close our minds and our hearts to those who are in need of our compassion out of fear and self-interest. A sad and unfortunate result of the terror attacks in Paris would be to turn away from those who are in need of our protection, to turn our backs on refugees who are running from violence and hatred. Already, some have called for a tightening of restrictions on who can seek a safe haven in our country. Such xenophobia is unbecoming the best of our humanity. How much different would the Jewish people be today had we never encountered that type of fear-based hatred a generation ago?
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetse, we deepen our encounter with the story of Jacob, the man who will bear the name “Israel.” He is a young man in flight from a dangerous situation. It isn’t safe for him to stay at home, so at his mother’s urging he flees with only the clothes on his back. On his first night he sleeps out in the open under the stars of the sky with a stone for a pillow. Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels climbing up and down a ladder. He hears God speaking to him, promising to comfort him. God says to Jacob, “I am Adonai, the God of your fathers: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. V’hiney Anochi imach – Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Let us take note that God stands by the side of a young man in trouble, seeing Jacob’s potential and offering him the promise of a better future. Some commentators see the ladder with the angels climbing and descending as a symbol of a life full of struggle, one marked by ups and downs. It’s as if God is reminding Jacob that throughout life he may stumble and fall, suffer and be hurt. The angels are moving up and down the ladder to pull Jacob upward and onward, to give him another chance. It’s as if God is communicating to Jacob through his dream that He will neither give up on him nor turn His back on him.
This is God’s message to the person who has nowhere else to go: Hiney anochi imach…I am with you, I will protect you.” The Torah reminds us that God is with those who are having a hard time on life’s journey, with those who are vulnerable and lost. Numerous times in the Torah, we are commanded to reach out to the strangers in our midst and to provide them with food and clothing. One modern commentator asks, “How does God care for the stranger? Through us, for God has no hands but ours.” Just as God is with those who struggle, so must we be with them as well.
This is no time to turn our backs on refugees and to give up on people who are running away from danger. Rather, we should reaffirm our commitment to care for those in need and to defy heartless terrorists who kill and mame in order to get their way.
V’hinei Anochi imach…behold, I am with you. Whether it be the refugee fleeing violence and persecution in a foreign land or the person out on the street right here in our community, we must emulate what God does, to be with those in need with our hearts and our hands.