Human beings naturally seek home. The place where you know where to hang your coat; the place where you can fall asleep and feel safe; the place where familiar voices and smells can fill each of us with the quiet confidence that our world is secure.
For centuries the Jewish people did not have a national home. We came to know well the dangers that went along with our national homelessness, even as we dreamed of Zion.
But for the most part, we did have individual homes. Certainly over the course of those centuries there were awful times of expulsion and personal homelessness, but we were not always driven out- without a place to call our own. Whether in Morocco or Mainz, in Venice or Vienna, in Baghdad or Bialystok, we Jews did lay down roots and we made our homes into sacred spaces. The riches of our cultures through the generations are a testament to the homes that we constructed and the sense of rootedness we gained throughout the lands of the diaspora.
But we never forgot what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. What it feels like to be truly afraid. To be on the run from Pharaoh and Emperor; to be a simple parent or child fleeing from armies intent on taking our very lives. Fleeing to survive.
During the nighttime flight of our patriarch Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau’s intent to murder him, we can imagine the panicked short breaths. We can almost hear the thump-thump of his heartbeat as it races to carry him to safety. We can see the beads of sweat on his brow as Jacob lies down on a vacant hilltop, placing his weary head on a pile of rocks, trying to catch a moment of home in the midst of his homelessness. And when he wakes, Jacob realizes that this very place, this very sense of vulnerability, is the gateway to heaven. It is from here that he-and we, his descendants- are to be dedicated to the task of caring for the vulnerable and exposed. To remember the feeling of the outsider. And bring them in from the cold.
I ask all of us to remember this lesson as millions of children and innocents of all ages flee the violence and destruction unfolding in Syria and Iraq. In 2016, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million are refugees outside of Syria. While these people are citizens of states still technically at war with Israel, the children of historic enemies, they are also human beings in danger. They are homeless. And vulnerable. The gates of heaven are open and see their plight.