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Princeton University: Dvar Torah Given at Closing Ceremony of Princeton Seeking Refuge Conference


Seeking Refuge Conference: Alexander Goldberg Dvar Torah at Closing Ceremony

This week we read in synagogue a complex set of instruction of how the children of Israel should build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, a sanctuary for G-d.

This is a special place, a centrepoint, where the people and Hashem come together as one in prayer and service.

Many Ancient Near East civilisations built Temples and sanctuaries. What makes this place special is the foundations that it is built upon. Proceeding this description in the Torah are a long set of laws providing that help us develop into a moral nation.

Amongst those commandments is one that appears twice:

‘Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.’
‘Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.’

When something appears twice in a passage in the Torah we understand the repetition to give it importance.

Being here in Princeton has made me think of other times that my people have been strangers both historically and in recent times. This institution gave a sanctuary a refugee: Albert Einstein.

In a letter to his friend, the Queen of Belgium, he wrote “I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton… In this small university town the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer.”

Einstein campaigned for others seeking exile. He vouched for many fleeing from oppression to a land that has written upon its portals Emma Lazarus’s words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

It is easy to stereotype or convince ourselves it is not our problem. We cannot build communities or nations on empty shrines: we build our institutions on strong moral foundations. The Jewish imperative does not allow us to turn our back on the stranger: indeed we must treat them with justice and respect.

The Israelites only built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, once they understood this fundamental principles: that we were all strangers, that we are all the stranger and before we can build a holy sanctuary to worship the Divine: we must give sanctuary to those people created in the Divine image: the stranger in need.

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