It was just a century ago – and millions of young soldiers were killed battling for a few yards of land in World War I and being gassed. Barely twenty years later, untold millions more died in yet another World War. Six million of our own people – by zyclon B. Perhaps “the lesson of Auschwitz is that you can get away with it,” a survivor once said. It is not ‘never again” but, all too often, again and again. NO, I am not equating any of the genocides of the past century with the Holocaust. But evil exists in the world-and it is our task not to stay silent, but to do all we can to respond to and restrain that evil.
We have watched the horrors unfold in Syria before our very eyes over these last few years-and we have done nothing. Millions and millions of Syrians have been displaced-perhaps 6 million internally displaced with maybe 5 million more in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan. Now, in the midst of civilians once more being gassed in Syria, we read the words “Arami oved avi – my father was a wandering Aramaen” at our seders. Taken from Deuteronomy, they refer to our patriarch Jacob, someone without a home, on the run. He was a refugee, displaced and pursued by Laban in, yes, what is today’s Syria. As we retold and retell our story, we know we were refugees-perhaps even Syrian refugees.
So another fascinating Pesach connection and lesson taught by Rabbi Tuvia Geffen in Atlanta over 80 years ago. An Orthodox rabbi who immigrated to America from Lithuania, his story was told well by Samuel Friedman in The New York Times. You can find the whole article at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/23/us/23religion.html. Noting that Rabbi Geffen had already spoken at Pesach in 1925 against Congress for passing laws that “have slammed shut the gates of the country before the wanderers, the strangers, and those who walk in darkness from place to place,” Rabbi Geffen sought a decade later to find a way to take Coca-Cola’s secret recipe to make it kosher for regular use and kosher for Pesach use. And what could be more American than to drink Coke?
Writes Freedman, “Rabbi Geffen’s solution to the Coke problem was not to forget the kosher rules and melt into the melting pot. But neither was it to decry the spiritual pollution of modernity in the form of a fizzy drink. …His answer was to have the majority address the distinct needs of a minority.” In becoming American, he made America even better.
Our ancestors were once wandering Aramaens. At this time of redemption once again, let us not close our doors to today’s wandering Aramaens, those refugees seeking shelter today. We owe it to them-and we owe it to America.