By Adiv Brooks-Rubin
Adiv Brooks-Rubin delivered this talk at his bar mitzvah at Adas Israel Congregation on Feb. 1, after returning from the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona where he did several days of service.
A little less than two months ago I was standing at a small, cold, stinky tent in a small Mexican border town called Agua Prieta. Some immigrants’ journeys start here, and some continue here. But no matter who you are, you should never have to stay in a place like that tent. They have to go three blocks to use the bathroom, or eat food or shower. They are scared. These people have been fleeing terrible conditions, sometimes terrible poverty and sometimes life-threatening violence. I got to talk to a few of the immigrants staying in the tent. They were actually happy and chipper, we were all laughing and joking, but you could see the nervousness in their faces. And it’s totally understandable. They may never make it into the United States to start their new lives. Instead, in part due to the hardened hearts of many Americans, they could have to return to their terrible, almost unheard-of conditions, where there are also many hard hearts.
Those hardened hearts made me think Parshat Bo, my bar mitzvah parshah. In this parshah, the Egyptians experience the last three plagues, which are locusts, darkness and killing of the firstborn. In two of the three cases, Moses warns Pharaoh about the coming plague and asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, but then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Only after the killing of the firstborn did Pharaoh let the people go.
One of the main things that bothered me in the parshah was that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. It seems unfair that God does this. It also seems unfair that God says: “So your sons, and sons’ sons will know how I made a mockery of the Egyptians.”
One possible answer is that God gave Pharaoh the chance and is growing impatient. It also could be that once a human’s heart is hardened, it is hard to undo.
Biblical commentator Chizkuni offers a different opinion. He says the reason God acted so harshly in hardening Pharaoh’s heart is because, after Pharaoh himself confessed to sinning, instead of freeing the Israelites, he and his servants continued to oppress the Israelites. This retraction by Pharaoh forced God’s hand to react in kind, matching the punishment to the sin committed.
Another commentator, Rabbeinu Bahya, says this happened because of a desire of God to show Pharaoh’s arrogance.
Arrogance and hard heartedness is something I have seen first hand recently.
For my bar mitzvah project, I went to the Mexican-American border. My mom and I visited a small town called Douglass, Ariz. It was a gray and gloomy day, fitting for the context. The American side of the wall was metal and had lots of barbed wire running down. It was intimidating and unwelcoming, to say the least.
We then crossed the border to the Mexican side, which surprised me in how different it was. There was no barbed wire, and there were very pretty murals everywhere, made by artists from as far as Canada. We visited Agua Prieta, a poor but cute town. For the first part of the tour of the town, we visited a women’s cooperative, where they teach women and children sewing, knitting, composting and gardening, and they raise money.
We went to the migrant resource center, where they explained in detail the asylum process and took us to a tent next to the wall. This was the tent I mentioned at the beginning — the small, cold, wet, stinky and very unpleasant one. Even though it is so unpleasant, people have to wait for up to two or three weeks in the tent waiting to get called by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to go onto the next step to ask for asylum. The migrant center provides everything from showers to food for them. However, if the asylum seekers leave the tent to go to the bathroom or to shower and their names are called, they are skipped altogether and have to go to the back of the lines. It was scary and sad, and most of all
inhumane and dehumanizing. Even after all of that, my mom and I were able to talk to some migrants and found their spirits were still high.
When I visited this in person, I really saw the damage caused by people with hardened hearts toward immigrants. Cruel policy and the stories we create about people without knowing them can cause hardened hearts, and as we see with Pharaoh, once one’s heart is hardened it is difficult to soften it.
I believe it is our responsibility to not become hard hearted. If you are able to, please go to the border and meet the people suffering and in need. Perhaps if Pharaoh had met some of the Israelites he was oppressing and talked to them and listened to them — learning the most important value we have, which is not oppressing the stranger — then his heart could have been softened.
Adiv Brooks-Rubin is a student at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital.