We were greeted this morning by the shocking news of the discovery of the decomposing bodies of dozens of people in an abandoned truck on the side of an Austrian highway. The bodies are assumed to be those of migrant workers, who were being transported from the Balkans to wealthier parts of Europe. As refugees stream across the continent, not only from the Balkans but from as far away as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, they often rely on human traffickers to bring them to job opportunities. Of course, these traffickers are not often motivated by the human dignity of their cargo.
The abominable treatment of migrant workers stands in contrast to a commandment found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei. “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not oppress him” (Deuteronomy 23:16-17). Contrary to Ancient Near East law contemporary to the writing of the Torah, and certainly contrary to the laws of the slave-holding states prior to the Civil War, the Torah grants asylum to fugitive slaves. Most scholars presume that the Torah’s law is not limited to Israelite slaves, but to outsiders as well–perhaps especially to them. Clearly, the Torah envisions a society where human dignity is paramount.
It’s only natural that ancient Israel would take such a view of fugitive slaves. After all, they were a nation of fugitive slaves. The land would be the place where they could establish themselves in freedom. So their borders and homes would have to remain open to those seeking asylum in their midst.
So it seems fitting that the modern expression of the Biblical vision, the State of Israel, must struggle with similar questions. Israel, too, experiences a large influx of migrant workers. More than a decade ago, they began coming from southeast Asia. In more recent years, people have fled war-torn Africa in search of refuge. What is Israel to do with these migrant workers? What two strong Jewish/Zionist values are in conflict, and what should Israel do? We’ll address this thorny question on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise