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Do Not Stand By Idle

Welcome the stranger, protect the refugee

On Yom Kippur afternoon, synagogue-goers around the world heard this verse from Leviticus, “You shall not stand by idle when your neighbor’s blood is being shed.” After weeks of reflection and our reckoning before God, this verse called us to take care of those who appear abandoned by the world community. Some of us are already suffering fatigue from waves of unpleasant stories about massive human displacement. It is quite natural that people do not want to be disturbed by strangers who cost money and place a strain on society at large. Our challenge is to remain engaged in the pursuit of justice.

JVG_OCV2_Refugees_Chad_TZI

HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is helping Darfur refugees in Chad

This reminds me of the annual Passover seder: Surrounded by comfort and good food, we are encouraged to remember the story of the Exodus as if we were the ones who had been slaves and refugees. The admonition to treat others with compassion and justice is echoed 36 times in the Torah. We must do so because we ourselves were foreigners in Egypt. The Jewish story is that of refugees. Jews carry the knowledge of how it feels to flee one’s homes.

Our Jewish tradition enjoins upon us the love of mankind. The Torah insists that we treat strangers with dignity and respect. The obligation to protect human life stands at the center of our tradition. It is the overarching principle of pikuah nefesh that asserts the supreme responsibility of protecting individuals and even trumps Shabbat observance. In his addenda to Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Nahmanides explains on the basis of Leviticus 25:35 that we must save the life of a ger toshav, a stranger in our midst, if he is drowning or if he is sick even on Shabbat, for pikuah nefesh overrides the Shabbat restrictions.

Cities of Refuge

In his Sefer Hamitzvot, Maimonides includes the mitzva of arei miklat, or cities of refuge, among the 613 Biblical commandments. This mitzva is introduced in the Torah portion Masei (Numbers 33:1–36:13).The Israelites are instructed upon entering the land of Canaan to designate places that would serve as asylums for inadvertent killers from violent retribution by their victims’ relatives. For Maimonides, this obligation implies not only the designation of the cities of refuge, but also ensuring their accessibility. Maimonides asserts: “The court is obligated to straighten the roads to the cities of refuge, to repair them and broaden them. Bridges should be built (over all natural barriers) so as not to delay one who is fleeing to [the city of refuge].”

Hence the Biblical institution provides us with a Jewish foundation for action for today, as advocated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and American Jewish World Service. To quote Rabbi Jacob E. Fine of the AJWS: “If our tradition displays such concern for people who have themselves committed murder, even if unintentionally, how much more so should we feel compelled to protect these tens of millions of refugees, the bulk of whom are not themselves criminals but rather innocent bystanders driven from their homes as a result of wars and violence.”


Rabbi Walter Homolka is rector of the Abraham Geiger College at Potsdam University

Photo Credit: Photo: Courtesy HIAS

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