Open Door, Open Heart

Rabbi George Gittleman

The summer Torah readings are all b’midbar, in the wilderness, part of the story of our ancient ancestors’ mythic 40-year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. Most of the story is laid out in the Book of Numbers (the Hebrew name is actually B’midbar). Some of Numbers is captivating, like the story of Bilam and his talking donkey, and other parts of the book are, well… pretty boring, like all the censuses: the lists of the names of all the tribes and how many people were in each tribe.  

There is also the description of the details of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that traveled with them on their journey. I sometimes strain to stay awake when I am reading these details, but this time a certain material used as covering for part of the mishkan caught my attention: dolphin skins. What were they doing with dolphin skins? How did they acquire them in the wilderness?

Many years ago one of my Bat Mitzvah students found a beautiful, modern midrash that explains how and why the dolphin skins came to be part of the mishkan. It goes something like this:

The parting of the Sea of Reeds was an amazing and bewildering sight. The rush of the water as two walls were formed almost knocked the fleeing Israelites off their feet! Walking through the sea was like being in the tallest and narrowest canyon you could ever imagine, but the cliffs were made not of rock but of water that seemed like it could collapse on them at any moment! Overwhelmed and paralyzed with fear, the Israelites might not have moved were it not for dolphins who, upon seeing how frightened and stuck the Israelites were, swam to the edge of the walls of water and used their fins to urge and guide them on their way.

Thanks to the dolphins, the Israelites made it safely to the other side, but the cost was great: the dolphins died of exhaustion. When the sea returned, the Israelite found the limp and lifeless bodies of the dolphins washed upon the shore. To honor their guides and rescuers for their help and courage, the Israelites used their skins as part of the covering of the Tent of Meeting, the mishkan.

As quaint as it is, this story makes me think about our current humanitarian crisis at our southern border. Scared, traumatized, bewildered people in dire need of food and shelter are instead met with barricades, checkpoints, and incarceration. A compassionate and righteous people would send social workers and doctors, not the National Guard.

Yes, we need a secure border, but surely we can help the thousands of people coming to us in desperate need without endangering the nation. We have the resources; what we are lacking is the heart to do what is right. 

In stark contrast to the current refugee crisis, upon their arrival to Ellis Island our grandparents and great-grandparents were welcomed with these lines by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus that are etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The “Golden Door” opened for us and millions like us and we in turn helped to make America great. The “Golden Door” is currently barred shut and a wall is waiting. As Jews and as Americans, we can’t let that happen.