Ilearned recently about the passing of a man named Kheder in Syria. Kheder has four daughters living in Toronto, including Thanaa, who has been here for more than 10 years and has raised her now-teenage children in the city. Thanaa and her husband have been the anchor family for her three sisters and their families, who were sponsored this year through JIAS’ Syrian family reunification initiative. We’re proud at Beth Tzedec Congregation to work closely with Thanna and two other sponsoring groups in helping these families start over in Toronto.
Yet, I feel sad that they’re not able to attend their father’s funeral and mourn with family and friends in their hometown in Syria. In fleeing their homeland as refugees in search of a peaceful future for their children without discrimination and threat of death, they’ve given up the opportunity to hold their father in his dying moments and participate in traditional burial rites.
In Mishpatim 20-21, the two verses juxtapose the laws of not oppressing gerim (strangers, or those who feel like strangers, though often understood to be converts to Judaism) with the injunction against mistreating orphans and widows. Interestingly, the justification for the rule about gerim is connected to our experience of being strangers in Egypt. In the case of widows and orphans, there is no mention of the source for our empathy and moral treatment of them. Rather, the Torah warns us that if we mistreat them, we will be killed, and our children and wives will become orphans and widows.
Though Thanaa and her sisters are not in the traditional category of orphans and gerim living in our Jewish community, these verses reinforce for me the responsibility we have for their well-being and the importance of the work that we’re doing and our requirement to be extra sensitive to newcomers as they become more at home and shed their feelings of being strangers in this land.