Tisha B’av is the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. On Tisha B’av, our first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, and our second Temple in 70 AD. Romans conquered Betar, ending the Bar Chochaba revolt in 132CE, killing a 100,000 Jews. On this day in 1096, the first Crusade began. In 1290, Jews were expelled from England, and in 1492 from Spain. On Tisha B’av in 1914, World War I began, setting the stage for World War II and the Holocaust. And in 1942, deportations began from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka Concentration Camp. The list of calamities goes on.
Today we mourn for those killed in each of these disastrous events. We do this by wearing black, and sitting low to the ground, and by maintaining a solemn demeanor. In addition to devastating loss, there is something each of these events have in common: they turned us in refugees. We were kicked out of Jerusalem, and England and Spain. We sought refuge and asylum from the harshness of Roman rule, from the Crusades, and from the Holocaust. Through no fault of our own, we were subjected to cruelty and oppression. Tisha B’av is a holiday about mourning. It is also a holiday about being an immigrant, an asylum seeker, and perhaps even a dreamer. “Love the stranger,” says the Torah “for you were strangers.”
Today we remember our first oppression, in the land of Egypt.
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
A new king forgot about who Joseph was, about the positive relationship the Egyptians had with the Jewish people. And rather than approach them, to ask the Israelites stories, or to forge a partnership once again, this pharaoh chose to demoralize the Jewish people. He saw the Israelites as a threat, demanded they be oppressed, and spoke of them in terms previously only used for animals. He took away our people’s dignity and subjected us to cruelty and subjugation.
Today we remember what happens when people stop seeing the stranger as a human being and instead opt to see them as caricatures, as animals, and as threats. We remember because as we know, those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.
Our past makes us sensitive to the injustices of today. On Tisha B’av our senses are heightened to the realization that, in the words of Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein, “there is an excruciating dissonance between the way things are and the way things should be.”
We are here because we hear the call. We see the ways in which our current administration insists on criminalizing immigration, demonizing huddled masses who came to our country yearning to be free.
In recent months, we have been appalled by the way in which families we torn apart at the border. After arduous, life-threatening journeys to the US, we bore witness, as children were placed in cages, and other unacceptable living situations, wondering if they would see their parents again, if they would hear their voices again.
The trauma these families endured—and still endure—horrify us. But the truth is this is just one symptom of an even bigger disease–a systematic assault on immigrants, on refugees, on all seekers of asylum.
While we need borders and protocol to keep our country safe, America loses its soul when we fear the asylum seeker, the child, and the refugee. It is decidedly unamerican for this country of immigrants to treat fellow immigrants with such contempt.
It is unfathomable that people who have been contributing to our society for decades, paying taxes, following the laws, raising American children, should fear deportation.
It is immoral that good, hardworking people should look over their shoulders every single day, fearful of an ICE raid coming to their place of work, to their home—fearful that something as minor as a broken taillight could precipitate their deportation.
We are here today because we were strangers, and we wish to protect the stranger.
We are here because the most emphasized mitzvah in the entire Torah is to care for the stranger, and to love the stranger.
We are here today because we know what happens when people fail to live up to this obligation. We are here to say “NEVER AGAIN!”
We are here because we want to make sure that our Nassau county government does everything it can within its power to protect the dignity and safety of people seeking freedom and safety on our shores.
We are here today to say: End family separations. End detention camps. End Zero tolerance.
There is another custom of Tisha B’av—a custom to read the book of Lamentations, which recounts some of the cruelty we endured in our past.
Lamentations has 5 chapters. This Tisha B’av, HIAS—the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, created a 6th chapter based on the assault on immigrants in our own time. I will chant it, in the traditional melody.
It is to be our rallying call, inspiring us to do all within our power to protect the stranger.
As we hear it, let us taken in its meaning. Let us consider all that we have done and all that we will continue to do to protect the rights of the immigrant.
My friends, Tisha B’av is today. But there will be a tomorrow. And it is up to us—and up to our officials to ensure that world bends towards justice.