26 October 2014

Stam Ish - I'm Just One Ordinary Person

Recently, I have imagined myself living in the nexus of a multi-generational debate over an interpretation of a passage in the Torah.  My teacher at HUC in Israel, Rabbi Ben Hollander (z’l), brought us the text of a pivotal moment in the Joseph story.  Joseph is sent by his father to seek the welfare of his brothers, who are off with the flocks.  Joseph arrives in Shechem and they are nowhere to be seen.  A helpful stranger asks Joseph what he seeks and, hearing he seeks the missing brothers, reveals that he has overheard that they have moved on to Dotan. (Gen. 37:12-17)  Without this stranger, who happens to be in just the right place at just the right time, Joseph would not find his brothers; they would not cast him in a pit; he would not be sold to slavery in Egypt and therefore not be able to save his family during the famine, nor set the events in motion that result in the Exodus, and thence the Israelite people standing at Mount Sinai - all because of this one man.  Early in Jewish history, the Targum (translation) Onkelos translates the Hebrew of the Torah text (which says ish or “a man”) as the angel Gabriel disguised as a man.  A thousand years later, the great Torah commentator Rashi agrees with this interpretation.  Such an event could not have been left to chance; the angel whose role was to protect the Jewish people stepped in to direct the course of history.  But, as Ben Hollander showed us (in my favorite commentary on a Torah text), Rashi’s contemporary Ibn Ezra says, stam ish “it’s just a person”.  At the time, I was impressed by ibn Ezra’s rationalism: Just read the text as it is written.  If the Torah says it’s a person, then it’s a person.  

A few weeks ago, a small group of rabbis attempting to form a New Jersey division of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, met with a family in need of help.  Catalino Guerrero had lived and worked in the United States since the 1980’s.  Early on, he unknowingly received some bad legal advice and was unable to regularize his status, though he worked and paid taxes.  Now older and with children and grandchildren, he is ill and the United States has been attempting to persuade him to voluntarily return to Mexico, leaving his home and family.  With help from a local group from the national community organizing group PICO, he was trying to receive a new stay of removal to avoid being deported the following week.  We were asked to call the New Jersey office of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and let them know that we knew about Catalino’s plight and that he had community support.  The next day, several of us called and left messages or spoke to a helpful officer in the department.  However, Catalino still had an appointment early that Monday morning, and, late Sunday evening, we were asked to show our support by attending that meeting with him and his family.  I was conflicted and would probably not have gone, had my wife not, serendipitously, been watching a social justice video created by my colleague, Rabbi Rob Nosanchuk and his congregation, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland.

So, I went. There was a small press conference.  Catalino spoke, as did his daughter, and representatives of other organizations.  Later I went in with Catalino and hand delivered a letter from the NJ-ROR rabbis to the helpful ICE officer.  Although I was told that my presence, as a rabbi, made a great difference, I felt that I had been more helpful by providing a chair for Catalino when he needed to sit, than that I influenced a vast government bureaucracy.  In the end, there was good news for Catalino and his family - he received a one year stay.  Since then colleagues have told me what a hero I am, and how great that I spent a few hours in the heat in Newark, but, I say, stam ish. I’m just one person, and I’m not sure that I did so much.  Joseph - or in this case, Catalino - is the real hero.  I’m just an extra in this scene.

Since then, however, I have been thinking.  I still do not know whether my presence, or the phone calls and letters of my colleagues, made a difference, or whether the facts of Catalino’s story would have led to the same result.  Much as others may think (and we may secretly wish) there is no powerful “rabbi card” that one can play to suddenly redirect the forces of the US government.  When I first read Ibn Ezra’s commentary, I thought it was a tour de force of rationalism; an argument not to mistake coincidence for Divine intervention.  Further reflection has changed my interpretation of what Ibn Ezra might have been teaching.  Lawrence Kushner (in Honey from the Rock) imagines that each of us carries not only the pieces of our own puzzle, but, unknowingly, the pieces needed for others’ as well.  In that chance encounter when we provide that piece, we are “a messenger of the Most High”.  What I learn from Ibn Ezra is that each of us, normal human beings, may be going about our own business, and, yet, unknowingly be the catalysts in the stories of others.  I hope that we were able to help Catalino Guerrero and his family.  I know that our presence made a difference to him, personally - and that is enough.  I do not need to play a greater, more heroic role.  Stam ish - I’m just one person.  So are you.  Maybe that is all that is needed.