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Parashat Shemot 5779 - "The Hebrews are Animals"

December 28, 2018

The drive west, away from I-19 in southern Arizona, is nothing if not beautiful. Saguaros dot the landscape as you approach the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, majestic mountains rising out of the approaching landscape. I’m here on a trip with other rabbis to see the Mexico-US border first-hand. We’re in our own caravan, rental cars of rabbis chasing the sun.

Except our path is not unimpeded.

We’re stopped twice — once on I-19 and once on Arivaca Road, at CBP checkpoints. 71 of these “interior checkpoints” are scattered between 25 and 75 miles north of the Mexico–United States border along major U.S. roads.

“The United States Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents may stop a vehicle at fixed checkpoints for brief questioning of its occupants,” according to the US Government Accountability Office, “even if there is no reason to believe that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens.”

Our cars, by contrast, pass these checkpoints without incident. Here, on American roads, our white faces allow for easy passage.

We arrive at the aforementioned Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Established by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Reagan Administration as a sanctuary for threatened and endangered plants and animals, it attracts nature buffs from across the country. In addition, as official US ports of entry have become increasingly inhospitable to immigrants, this area of the Arizona desert has become a prime area of crossing for undocumented immigrants.

It’s here, in the Arizona desert, that Father Pete, the Jesuit priest from the Kino Border Initiative, guides us on the very path that migrants walk — in the opposite direction — to enter into the United States.

In other words, in the US immigration debate, this is ground zero. On May 30, 2009, Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, were killed in a home-invasion in Arivaca by a group of self-styled Minutemen militia.

Of course, white militia members are not the only killers out in this desert.

Since 1994, Father Pete explains, 7,000 people have died in US deserts trying to enter the United States, mostly in Texas and, here, in Arizona. Three or four die each year, in ravines like the one in which we stand, when spring rains flood the valley.

But they’re not just numbers. They’re people.

This week’s parasha is Shemot. It’s the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the liberation story of our people. Exodus, of course, means a mass migration of people, often to escape oppression. By contrast, Shemot, the Hebrew name for the book, means “names.”

V’eleh shemot b’nei Yisrael ha-ba’im Mitzraymah. “These are the names of the Israelites who came toward Egypt.”[1] The Torah then proceeds to list the names of the 12 sons of Jacob. Liberation starts with honoring people not just as a mass of numbers. But as individuals. Individual people. With individual lives and individual stories and, yes, individual names.

By contrast, the way the new Pharaoh of Exodus can whip his people into a genocidal frenzy is by erasing individual names, by turning the Israelites into faceless horde. Lo yada et-Yosef. Pharaoh, according to the Torah, “didn’t know Joseph” by name.[2]

You would think it would be hard to kill a people, to encourage them to disregard the souls of human beings. It turns out that all you need to do is define an “us,” and a “them.”

Pharaoh says to his people (read: not the Israelite people), Havah nitchokmah lo, pen yirbeh. “Let’s be smart about this, so they don’t multiply.”[3]

And it’s a short journey from being afraid of the other, and their numbers, to being OK with their deaths.

A big part of the work done by KBI and Father Pete is to humanize migrants. As we walk this path, Father Pete points out the items that migrants have left behind — he calls them relics — in fleeing their home countries.

He points out abandoned water jugs. Out in this desert, they are counter-intuitively painted black, so that they do not reflect sunlight. Much of what we find, in fact, is designed to avoid detection. Father Pete points out a pair of oversized booties with carpeted bottoms. Migrants wear these, he tells us, so as not to leave footprints in the desert sand. It suddenly occurs to me why so many of the folks I met in the comedor carried camouflage backpacks. For America’s migrants, camouflage is not a fashion statement. It is a survival strategy.

We even come across a discarded camouflage facemask, a fabric skull, a haunted face lingering behind its empty eye sockets

I silently contemplate what it would be like to wear a facemask in the desert.

Father Pete has collected various items from previous trips through this desert. He shows us photographs, documents, birth certificates.

Were they discarded by migrants running from the border patrol? Dropped accidentally? Or did their owners die out in this desert? We simply don’t know.

But it’s the bible he shows us that finally brings me to tears. It’s inscribed with the hand-written name of its owner. Inside is a Mexican bus ticket. In the back is a quote in Spanish of unknown origin.

My companions help me translate. “The embers in a fire burn when they are together,” it reads. “But if you take one out it will be extinguished.”

The quote concludes: “so is your relationship with other Christians.”

Was the owner of this Bible, like a dying ember, extinguished? Here, in this “Christian nation?”

Though my tears, I say a silent prayer for Father Pete. He is a hero out in this desert. His heroism has a precedent in Torah.

A precedent in Pharaoh’s daughter, who pulled the Hebrew baby Moses out of the water. And a precedent in the midwives in the book of Exodus, midwives who refuse to betray their mission and kill Hebrew babies, who defy Pharaoh’s murderous decrees.

How did they do it? Pharaoh demands to know why they didn’t kill the Hebrew boy babies like he commanded, why they let the mothers keep their children.

The ivriyot? they ask Pharaoh. “The Hebrew women?”

They are chayot.

In most English editions of the Torah, this is translated delicately. The Hebrew women are “vigorous,” and thus give birth before we arrive.[4]

But anyone who’s heard the Yiddish phrase vilde chaya knows what chayot means.

The Hebrew women are animals.

In Rashi words, “implying that, like animals, the Hebrew women did not need midwives.”

Wow, those midwives are smart. They use Pharaoh’s racism against him.

“You know the Hebrews. Of course we couldn’t get to their women in time.

“Those animals.”

Pharaoh won’t be the last leader to use that rhetoric.

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country,” our president said, this past May. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”[5]

The “animals,” of course, like the Hebrew animals, have names. We’ve learned two of them in the past week.

Felipe Alonzo-Gomez was an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala. He died in ICE custody. Before him was a 7-year-old girl, also a migrant whose family was seeking asylum. Her name was Jakelin Caal Maquin.

They are not numbers. They are not animals. They have names. They are people, created in God’s image.

As 2018 turns to 2019, the hour demands. Our history demands. Our God demands. How will we be like Pharaoh’s daughter? How will we be like the midwives? How will we defy a culture of cruelty and hate, and restore dignity and divinity to the children of God, now within our midst?

[1]Exodus 1:1
[2]Exodus 1:8
[3]Exodus 1:10
[4]Exodus 1:19
[5]Immigration Roudtable, White House transcript, May 16, 2018
Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782