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May 5, 2023

Parashat Emor: Radical Empathy

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

"Parashat Emor: Radical Empathy"
Rabbi Dan Ross

Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane with Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, with three members of our LCLJ team, and, most importantly, with 23 of Central’s extraordinary 8th and 9th graders.

Our destination was Phoenix, Arizona. Our itinerary: an immigration justice trip to the border. Because of the pandemic, this was actually my first time traveling with Central. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, other than that because we were chaperoning teenagers, I shouldn’t plan to get any sleep.

Seventy-two hours later, utterly exhausted, I can say that our trip was breathtaking, moving, shattering, and inspiring. The situation at the border is undeniably complex and the diversity of speakers we heard from and experiences we had sought to capture the nuances of that complexity.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Every night of the trip, we asked our students to write journal entries about the experiences they had throughout the day: what they learned, why it was important, and how it changed their perspectives. You can find these journal entries on the CenSyn Teens Tumblr page.[1] (Yes, Tumblr is still a thing.)

This evening, I want to share with you some of the highlights from our teens’ reflections. Just before attending Shabbat services at a synagogue in Phoenix,

we heard from Eddie, a Jewish DACA recipient who crossed the border with his mother when he was three years-old. After hearing Eddie’s story, one of our teens wrote:

I was not aware of how hard it really was and still is to come through the…border and live as an undocumented person (even with DACA). Eddie talked about how traveling across Mexico was one of the only times he saw his mother break down, about border patrol pointing guns at his mother and forcing both of them into a detention center…and about how he couldn’t get his driver’s license because he was undocumented…. The struggles of an undocumented person are crazy and I did not know much about them until now.[2]

As you can imagine, Eddie’s testimony moved many of us to tears.

And the very next morning, we drove to the border wall in Nogales, where we heard from a retired border patrol agent named Chris. Chris showed us the futility of the wall’s recently installed barbed wire, which was littered with jackets, sweatshirts, and a teddy bear. And then he told us what his job was actually like, how he was trained to catch bad guys trying to bring drugs into this country,

but instead found himself saving a mother and her child who were waist deep in freezing water as they tried to cross the border. After hearing from Chris, one of our teens wrote:

I learned…the actual process of how border patrol works from a border patrol agent. I learned that from the inside, the job is challenging physically…. Without [the] border patrol there would be many people coming into the country without legal permission, but it is also important to address the fact that these people had to escape hardships in their home countries.[3]

Chris’ insights into his previous profession gave us a different perspective to consider. And our itinerary was much more than just a collection of speakers. We volunteered with a Catholic organization that welcomes asylum seekers to this country, greeting a bus load of new arrivals from an ICE detention center with water, snacks, and smiles.

We also hiked a desert trail used by migrants, leaving gallons of water along the way, hoping they’ll be found by those who need them. After the hike, one of our teens reflected:

We were able to step into the migrants’ shoes and were able to feel how they felt in the hot Arizona sun. For me it was hard walking for an hour and a half, so I can’t imagine how they do it.[4]

And another wrote:

Today we were told that after days of barely any water, when offered water at the border, some undocumented people told the volunteers…to save it for others…. After a long walk home I always rush to get water and these people are hiking through the desert…. I want to bring home some of the selflessness of the people who saved water for others.[5]

The Jewish values that animated our trip to Arizona won’t surprise anyone here.

In Hebrew, our first patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah, are called ivrim, which literally means border crossers. Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to care for the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And countless times throughout our history, our people have been refugees.

But this Shabbat, as I share with you the wisdom and thoughtfulness of our teens, I am taken by a verse in this week’s Torah portion Emor:

מִשְׁפַּ֤ט אֶחָד֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כַּגֵּ֥ר כָּאֶזְרָ֖ח יִהְיֶ֑ה כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

“You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike: for I, יהוה, am your God.”[6]

The United States is a nation of laws. We have borders. And the lesson that our teens took from our trip is not that we shouldn’t. Rather, it’s the lesson of this verse from Emor. The great medieval commentator Rashi observes that this verse’s concluding words–אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם“, I, יהוה, am your God”—are unnecessary.

He asks: What does God have to do with having one law for citizens and strangers alike?

Rashi’s answer: These words remind us that our God is the God of both the strangers among us and our fellow citizens.

This verse is a call to radical empathy. To see the humanity in both the mother crossing the border with her child and the border patrol agent who stops them. I will be the first to admit that this is no easy commandment to follow. But that’s why we went to Arizona. To put names and faces to the news, to cultivate our capacity for compassion.

As one of our teens reflected about the trip:

[We] heard about individual experiences, which was personally really impactful because it…humanizes a story when you can meet the person and talk to them and ask…questions. This helped build a sense of empathy beyond thinking about how bad the current immigration [system] is, but thinking about all…the different people it affects in different ways. So when I get home, I’ll work on being more empathetic and look for ways to get involved in my community helping undocumented people.[7]

I’d like to think Rashi would have been proud.

I know I am.

Shabbat Shalom.



[2]A journal entry by one of the participants in Central’s 2023 8th and 9th grade immigration justice trip to Arizona

[3] A journal entry by one of the participants in Central’s 2023 8th and 9th grade immigration justice trip to Arizona

[4] A journal entry by one of the participants in Central’s 2023 8th and 9th grade immigration justice trip to Arizona

[5] A journal entry by one of the participants in Central’s 2023 8th and 9th grade immigration justice trip to Arizona

[6] Leviticus 24:22

[7]  A journal entry by one of the participants in Central’s 2023 8th and 9th grade immigration justice trip to Arizona

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.