Pushing Back Against Moral Depravity in the Age of Trump

"In order that we will not have cruel hearts..."


A Jew is taught to be delicate with the world. To tread lightly and consider that which is right in front of them with compassion and thought. All creatures great and small are afforded this delicate touch.[1]

If you come across a bird's nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. (Deuteronomy 22:6)

In a nest, in a tree, above you, or on the earth, below you: WHAT. DO. YOU. DO.? You can walk on by and just acknowledge and appreciate the beauty of creation. Or you can interject your human self into their peace. In the Torah scenario: you want the eggs/fledglings. You want to take from creation. You want to own that which the bird created. You want to take their lineage, their purpose, their love, their world. WHAT. DO. YOU. DO?


These are birds. Within the Jewish context, their eggs are permissible food. But we have a choice. We can act in a delicate and compassionate manner. For we are taking something that is loved and cherished by another being. Therefore, we shoo the mother away before taking the young.

Two of the most notable and quotable Jewish thinkers, in their commentaries on this passage, clarify for the reader the deep spiritual and moral values that are embedded within Judaism through this text. Here are interpretations of this text from Maimonides/RAMBAM (1135-1204 born in Spain and died in Egypt) and Nachmonides/RAMBAN (1194-1270 born in Spain and died in Acre in Israel)—each medieval scholar upping the ante on extracting the most loving and kind interpretation of the text.

If then the mother is let go and escapes of her own accord, she will not be pained by seeing that the young are taken away... If the Law takes into consideration these pains of the soul in the case of beast and birds, what will be the case with regard to the individuals of the human species as a whole?

RAMBAM The Guide of the Perplexed, vol. III: 48, translation, Shlomo Pines, page 600


According to Nachmonides the purpose of this mitzvah, the biblical commandment, is to eradicate cruelty from the scope of human experience.

“In order that we will not have cruel hearts that will render us unable to demonstrate mercy.”

Commentary on the Torah, Sefer Devarim 22:6, translation by Rabbi David Etengoff


Both RAMBAM and RAMBAN also connect this mitzvah of growing sensitivity and kindness within our consciousness to yet another animal-related mitzvah. The injunction to not to slaughter a parent and child (animal) on the same day.

Do not slaughter a cow or sheep and its young on the same day.

Leviticus 22:28


Birds, sheep, cows. Torah, our sacred text, moves us towards moral and spiritual perfection through our treatment of creatures and the planet. If we are to show compassion, dignity, kindness and delicate regard for these creatures then ACHAT AL CAMA V’CAMA (a Talmudic term meaning "then all the more so") we should treat each other, human beings, with that same level of holy regard.

You know you are living in a society of moral decline when separating parents and children forcibly is part of the structure of the society. This past week the New York Times, along with other news sources, reported that the Trump administration is moving forward with a policy of forcibly separating parents and children who seek to cross into the United States of America without the proper paperwork.

The most contentious ­proposal — to separate families in detention — would keep adults in federal custody while sending their children to HHS shelters. This was floated in March by then-Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, who is now White House chief of staff. He told CNN at the time that the children would be “well cared for as we deal with their parents.”

Our current government has transgressed the norms of acceptable human conduct in actively seeking to violate in form, function, and intent, one of the most basic moral codes of the biblical tradition: to seek out Divine compassion increasingly into our human consciousness.


A society's  light dims when the hearts of the wealthy and strong and comfortable are stone cold frozen towards those who struggle, who seek refuge, who risk everything for safety, security and simply, life, for their children. We are in a place where the will of the strong to crush the weak has enveloped all of us. We live within a slowly descending darkness. We Jews have seen this before. We know that leaders like Trump and Kelly and Pence and Ryan and Putin are the kind of men who will burn down a society, descend it into the pits of hell to serve their own twin Gods of money and power. And the outstretched arms of the poor, the homeless and the stateless, the parents and children reaching out to each other with tears in their eyes and screams on their lips? This they are willing to see happen to achieve their own goals. We know that all who stay silent are complicit. Cruelty will be their legacy. Our legacy.

I know this because my people have been the bird and the nest, the baby sheep and the parent sheep, vulnerable and afraid far too many times to count. And we know what it looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like to take the parent, tear them from their screaming children and separate them: STATE SANCTIONED. We know for we were placed on trains to Auschwitz where first separated, all ended up in the same location, straight into the incinerator-treated like waste. Which is how the blackened soul of European civilization saw them. Jews were unwanted waste. Of no value.

One particularly heinous example of parents and children being separated happened in Paris, France, July 16-17, 1942. We can pinpoint day and time. No one can escape the judgment of history. The French live with their shame to this day. In the middle of their gem of a city, thousands of women and children were rounded up, placed in a deportation center and then the mothers were placed on the cars used to transport cows and sheep and sent to the slaughter.  Many of these Jews were refugees seeking shelter in France, running from the Nazis. The French Jews thought they were safe and that only “foreign” Jews who were there without citizenship would be deported. The Jews of France were sadly mistaken. Their own society liquidated them along with the others.


After the parents were sent to death camps the children were left alone in the deportation camp. Only strange oppressors as their guardians. Thousands of children.  Ages 18 months to 16, went next to the death camps. Alone. Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, then 14, managed to escape. She retells her first-person account of the mass deportation and murder of the Jews living in Paris the summer of 1942. When Sarah and her mother arrived at the privately owned indoor sports stadium where the Jews were being collected they were told they were being deported to Germany to work.

There were already 5,000 people in there. It was dreadful. There was a horrible hubbub. Children were running around, but the parents in the stands were silent. There was an atrocious smell. The few toilets were quickly clogged. I saw adults go to the bathroom everywhere… When we asked the police what they were going to do with us, they told us that we were going to be sent to work in Germany… We’ve been lied to,' said my mother. 'They are preparing something really bad. You can’t make those people work. We have to escape!

Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, Survivor


One and a half million children were murdered during the Holocaust. Not just Jewish children but also those of the Roma, Gypsies, those of non-Jews who resisted the Nazis and children with disabilities. It is hard to argue that this history is one of the darkest of the western world. It does not get much darker than this. My people have known mothers being ripped from children, separation, detention, and statelessness. We knew this darkness and cruelty and we know better than to give this president any accolades for any reason[2]. We should know to stand up for those who are being crushed by the mighty. The headlines elucidating the scheme to oppress the week that plastered every headline last week should make our blood run cold.

Letter written by child detained at Hutto detention center in Texas

Our government is holding thousands of nests in their hands. We are watching their grip tighten and tighten and begin to crush the bodies, minds, and spirits of those fleeing poverty, persecution, and terror. Their hands are the hands of cruelty. Their hearts are hearts of cruelty. No better, no worse than the everyday French policemen who rounded up the Jews of Paris so that they could be speedily sent to their deaths. No better or worse than Nazis. They will readily destroy the lives of parent and child on the same day. They are running to do the work of destruction. Their policies establish structures of evil. Mother, father, child, baby, grandparent, auntie or uncle-all throw into the same pit. The pit of the unwanted.


And many of our fellow citizens seek to add even more to this pit. On our national horizon, we have the lives of 800,000 of our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and classmates in our hands. These are not recent border crossers. But they are stateless. They have no national identity. They are the dreamers. Much like the Jews who fled to France to seek refuge, much like the delicate existence of a parent bird and their offspring at the hands of a human being-they are vulnerable. Their lives are in our hands. And it worth shutting down our government to protect them.

We are yet able to demonstrate mercy. Every human being has the capacity to demonstrate mercy and kindness. Holocaust Survivor Victor Frankel emerged from his pit with these words of wisdom from humanity. They are an echo, a long, vast, wide and interconnected echo of the sacred injunction in the Torah to always follow the path of compassion and mercy.

Migrant children, most from Honduras, in a U.S. detention center in West Texas (Image: Episocopal Diocese of West Texas)
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Viktor E. Frankl


We stand at a crossroads and we have a choice. To help or to harm. To treat the other with sensitivity or cruelty. We know the direction the majority of our society has taken. We have seen it before. And we have no greater sacred obligation as Jews than to choose life and compassion over money and power. To choose correctly. The path, the derech, of God. Derech Elohim. The Godly path that is always moving us in the direction of justice and compassion.   Take their hands into your hands. Make the call. Knock on the door. Organize. Protest. Persist. Shelter. Offer Refuge. Give Sanctuary.

Guard your heart and minds against the forces of cruelty. For the sake of parents and children everywhere: DEMONSTRATE MERCY! THAT is what you do.


Rabbi Kinberg

12/24/17

FOOTNOTES

[1] Implicit in my writing of this essay is a critique of the current government of the State of Israel and the many needlessly cruel policies of the government of Israel towards Palestinians. Security is not the same as cruelty. And the current government of Israel has crossed the line.

[2] Shame on all of the Jewish groups, including the Reform Movement, for patting Trump on the back over the Jerusalem issue. You just sold your souls to the devil. 

Kol Ami

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