Rabbi Schaefer’s Sermon on National Refugee Shabbat

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer

This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, begins with the famous words:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ

God said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.”

Why does God specify three different places from which Abram is to go forth? Wouldn’t mentioning one have been enough? Much ink has been spilt by rabbis over the generations trying to understand this repetition.

מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ

“From your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.”

Some commentators believe that each description refers to a single location and that the three-fold repetition is intended for emphasis. However, it’s possible that these three designations are not referring to one place, but rather to three different locations. Abraham is not only being told that you can’t stay where you are, but also that you can’t go back to where you were born, and you can’t go to the land of your native people. Essentially, you have nowhere to go, but to a new home.

It’s not a coincidence that we study these words on National Refugee Shabbat, a national event organized by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, to highlight the plight of 68.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced due to persecution and violence.

Of that 68.5 million – which is 10x the population of Massachusetts – over 60% are displaced, but still living within the borders of their country. However, 25.4 million elders, adults, and children, are refugees, who have been forced to flee “from their land, from their birthplace, and from their father’s house” to find safety in a different country.

The poet Worson Shire,[1] born in Kenya to Somali parents who eventually found their way to England, captures the heartbreak behind uprooting one’s life and family. She writes:

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well….


you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty

voice in your ear saying leave,

run away from me now

i don’t know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here

For the 24 million refugees, that is adults, elders, and children, who have been forced to flee their home country due to persecution because of their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, or political opinion – there are three options for finding, safety, stability, and building a better life for their children.

  1. Repatriation to their homeland, if and when the situation changes.
  2. Integration into the country to which they’ve fled – this is mostly to developing nations that border their homeland.
  3. And finally resettlement, for the most vulnerable people who are not safe in their homeland or where they’ve fled

Less than 1% of refugees are actually resettled, and the U.S. has traditionally led the world in terms of resettlement. In the United States, people are hand-selected by the government, subject to background checks, and multiple security screenings. For more than a decade, the annual ceiling was set at 70,000. The Obama administration raised it to 110,000 for 2017 in response to the crisis in Syria, but President Trump dropped it back to 50,000 and last month the administration announced that it would drop again to 30,000 for 2019, the lowest number ever set by any president since the Refugee Act became law in 1980.

Because, as a country, we have cut the number of refugees we resettle by more than half, we have also cut the number of refugees resettled worldwide by about a half.

These are human beings who have faced war, famine, violence, and persecution, with nowhere else to go. They can’t return to their land, their birthplace, or their father’s house. For those, who are still stirred by the words of Emma Lazarus, emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty –

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus, 1883)

There are a few things we can do. The most important thing to do, if you are old enough, is to vote on Nov. 6th. The number of refugees welcomed into the US has gone down, but it can go back up again. Vote. Make sure your friends and parents vote. If you believe that the United States should be a moral leader, remind your elected officials what moral leadership looks like.

We also have a number of 6th and 7th graders in the room. If this is an issue that you care about, consider making it the focus of your mitzvah project. Raise awareness, organize people to take action, or support a local refugee family who needs help rebuilding their life in a new country.

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is called, Avram HaIvri, literally, “Abram the one who crosses over.” Having to leave his home and settle into a new land, helps Abraham grow into a moral leader. He is celebrated in the Jewish tradition, for his loving-kindness, welcoming strangers into his home, and for fighting for justice by bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Even if we don’t have the experience of going forth from our land, our birthplace, and our father’s house, we can have compassion for those in our tradition and those who in the present who take that journey. And we can act to help them by following the moral example of our ancestor, who welcomed in those in need of shelter and fought to create a more just world.

[1] “Home” by Kenyan Somali poet Warsan Shire