While Nicky’s not been well, I’ve slept in our spare room, where we’ve often hosted guests through the excellent organisation Refugees at Home. This is Refugee Week, and Tuesday was World Refugee Day.
I found a small note in that spare room last night. It was post-it size, stuck to the bedside bookshelf so that you could only see it with your head on the pillow.
It read as follows. On top was written in large letters simply: ‘A…’ (I won’t give his name). Underneath was ‘with love from Nicky & Jonathan & Libbi & Mossy & Kadya & Nessie.’ I guess A… cut it out from a birthday card we must have given him, I really don’t know…
A… has moved on now, to face a world which may or may not want him, where employers may help him, but may well also exploit him, where there may or may not be the apprenticeship as an electrician for which he’s been searching. (If you have any leads, please, please, tell me!)
Several times he said to us in the months that he was here: ‘Before I had no-one; now I have you.’ Our dog Nessie adores him.
I looked at the note and felt affection and appreciation, but also, and in greater measure, sadness and shame.
Many of our parents or grandparents, many of our great rabbis, were refugees. They knew from bitter experience what the Torah calls nefesh hager, ‘the soul of the stranger’.
Nachmanides, Moses son of Nachman (1194 – 1270), had to flee his native Girona; he would never see his beloved family again. Commenting on the Torah’s words ‘You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers…,’ he wrote:
I, God, see the tears of the oppressed who have no one to comfort them and power lies in the hands of their oppressors, and I protect every human being from the hands of those stronger than them. Similarly, [the Torah says] ‘you shall not afflict the widow or orphan,’ for I hear their cry. For all these people do not trust in themselves but put their trust in Me…[because] every stranger feels low and vulnerable… (comment to Exodus 22:20)
God protects the vulnerable! If only that were true!
Yet it is true, in an indirect, attenuated, broken way. It is to the small spark of God in us, the infinitesimal part within us all of the Infinite, Compassionate One, who desires that all life be nurtured and loved, that every refugee, everyone person who feels lost, everyone who feels helpless before the roar of life’s ceaseless, merciless traffic, looks.
The whole purpose of religion is to expand that spark of God in us, so that it fills our consciousness and directs our actions. Few prayers, if any, are more important than the simple words said three times every day: ‘Petach libbi beToratecha, God, may Your Torah, Your teaching, open my heart.’
The purpose of a religious community, whether synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or church, is to nurture through our religious practice and spiritual teaching a counterculture of compassion, understanding and welcome, in the face of the cruelty of so much of the world, the randomness of chance and the constant injustice and oppression caused by human actions.
We all inevitably give hurt, however much we determine to do so as little as possible. The essential question is: what can I do with my life to bring healing and compassion?