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Toward Shabbat: Va-era

This past weekend, I was blessed to be with our BJ Teens in Arizona, learning about immigration in America. In some of our first moments of the trip we learned a piece of Pirkei Avot together: “וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ—Do not judge your fellow human until you have reached his place (2:4).” What does it mean to reach another human’s place? Does it refer to a physical place? Or is it an emotional space? We did not come to a conclusion, but at the end of the conversation, I overheard one of the teens suggest that it could mean “hearing [someone’s] story and feeling the things that person feels.”

Throughout our four days together in Arizona, we met with a vast array of people, each of whom had their own perspective, opinions, and experiences. Each articulated a different problem concerning immigration. Each had their own story to share. And each taught us something new. As Shabbat set in, we heard the story of activist Eddie Chavez Calderon, a DACA recipient and member of the Tzedek America team (a programming group that planned the trip). At age five, Eddie and his mom fled cartel violence from a small town in Mexico and crossed the U.S-Mexico border after walking for days without food or water.

Our trip culminated with a walk along the border wall, at the exact place where Eddie and his mother entered the country. As the bus pulled up to the spot, I looked over at Eddie and saw that his leg started to bounce; his face flushed, red with heat, and his hands began to shake. Another Tzedek America team member leaned over to him. “Are you okay?” “Yeah,” he answered.

One might have thought that Eddie needed some space to just be with his emotions, but, instead, he did something remarkable. Eddie grabbed the bus microphone with confidence and spoke directly to the teens. “I am feeling extremely anxious right now,” he said. He explained that his hands were sweating and his heart was racing, because, he said, at any moment, especially with his status as an activist, a border patrol officer or ICE agent could detain him even for a few days before they “discovered” that he was a DACA recipient and protected from detention. He admitted to the teens that he was afraid, but then he added, “You have heard my story and you have shared my pain, and because of that you are my family, and family supports each other. It is only because of your presence standing with me that I can will myself to ride this bus and to walk along the wall with you. It is because of each and every one of you with me.”

His vulnerability was powerful, and it left a bus of 40 teens silent. In that moment, we each understood what it meant להָגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמו, to reach the place of another human being. This phrase, we realized, means cultivating enough empathy that another person might feel comfortable sharing their deepest vulnerabilities. For Eddie, indeed, the fact that each of us heard his story and felt his feelings enabled him to speak so freely and with such sincerity. No one can ever fully stand in the shoes of another, but we can reach their place.

But Eddie pushed us one step further. He empowered us to act on our empathy—not only to reach his place, but to stand with him. When Eddie told his story, we listened intently, hungry for the next piece, until we arrived at the last page—a blank page. This is the page on which we write the next chapter, a chapter filled with our own actions.

At the closing circle of the trip, we joined together in a spiritual:

May the life I lead
Speak for me
May the life I lead
Speak for me

When I come to the end of the road
And I lay down my heavy load

May the life I lead
Speak for me

Teens raised up their own voices, inserting, “May the choices I make,” “the tefillot (prayers) I pray,” “the song I sing,” or “the paths I take”—may it all speak for me. Throughout this trip we gathered story after story and experience after experience, but the next page is blank, ready to be filled with our next course of action. How will we fill the pages to come? Will we allow Eddie’s vulnerability and the feelings so many others shared with us throughout our journey to influence what we do? How will our actions speak for us?

When we come to the end of our road and lay down our heavy load, may the stories we heard, the places we reached, and the people we chose to stand with speak for us. May the life I lead speak for me.

Written By Alissa Platcow

Alissa is a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York. Originally from Brookline, MA, her favorite color is purple and she is beyond delighted to join and get to know the BJ community.

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