When Passover began, I asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” As it ends, I ask, “Why is this Torah column different from all other Torah columns?”
The answer begins with Elie Wiesel’s account of Jews in a concentration camp unable to celebrate Simchat Torah for lack of a Torah scroll with which to dance. One man solves the problem by picking up a child and holding him as he would a scroll. “This will be our Torah!” he announces.
We are not told what happened to that child, but we can guess, and I think of him while reviewing Dayenu, that celebration of God’s many mighty acts, each one being Dayenu (“Enough!”): But it wasn’t enough, not for the concentration-camp children like the one in the story. “Let my people go,” Moses demanded of Pharaoh; and he didn’t. Neither did Hitler.
Originally, actually, Hitler did propose letting Jews go; the problem was, no one would take them. The Final Solution was really the Second Solution — undertaken when the first one, exporting Europe’s Jews, failed. Even after Aug. 1, 1942, when our government learned with certainty that Jewish genocide was in the works, we refused to help. When Sweden offered to admit 20,000 Jewish children if America would feed them, we turned them down.
We were not the only ones. In 1945, a Canadian official was asked how many Jews could be admitted after the war ended. His infamous reply is legendary: “None is too many.”
These facts are representative of a thousand others, well known by now. Jews would become a public charge, people said; the economy couldn’t sustain them. Many of them were criminals. They would make us “vulnerable to enemies,” the State Department argued.
We Jews can properly disagree on many things, but the moral obligation to open our borders to oppressed seekers of asylum is not one of them. When we say, “Never again,” we cannot just mean “Never, just for ourselves!” Yet here we are, closing borders and saying of others what was said of us: they will be a public charge; they are criminals; we’ll be vulnerable to terrorists.
The failed states that created these refugees are not Nazi Germany: I know that. They are not cases of state-sponsored genocide: I know that too. And not all the refugees are alike: some are more threatened than others. But the horrors they do face — starvation, murder, rape, and more — can kill you just the same.
The helpless children among them remind me of another Wiesel account: of an Auschwitz child publicly hanged but too weightless for the noose to kill him right away. Instead, he dangles in the wind, as if awaiting salvation after all. Refugee children too are “dangling in the wind” while we decide their fate. Is America still “that great strong land of love” (in Langston Hughes’ words) or not?
The seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” becomes newly macabre when we recall that Wiesel named his Auschwitz testimony “Night.” For would-be immigrants, cruelly and needlessly sent back home to disaster, this night is not at all different from all other nights. When mounting darkness occludes all hope, when it chokes off every possibility of deliverance, night is just night.
We Jews (more than most) have known night. We know (better than most) that we should be debating the best possible way to do the right thing. We should not be doing whatever we can to do nothing.
This Torah column differs from all other Torah columns because it is current, and urgent. How can we bid Passover farewell without remembering that as much as Pharaoh wouldn’t let us out, Amalek wouldn’t let us through; and when the Nazis would let us leave, America wouldn’t let us in? Jews, especially, have the obligation to ensure that history does not record our America as another Amalek.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.