“Oh, liberty! Treasure your liberty!” said the man behind the double pane window. Speaking into the visitation phone he whispered, “All I wish is to magically turn into a bird so that I can fly away.” He looked up for a moment and closed his eyes to show me that he would rather imagine the world in his mind than see the reality of his situation. As I sat in silence, I could not help but be touched by the depth of his despair. With the full weight of my being I felt the urge to stand up and walk out of the visitation booth, out of the cinderblock building, beyond the barbed wire fencing, and into the sun-filled parking lot where my car stood ready to take me home.
The man I was visiting, let’s call him Joseph, is an asylum seeker detained at an immigration detention center, a misnomer for what is really a prison. He is a survivor of violence in his home country in Africa where his people are an ethnic minority being persecuted, jailed, and sometimes indiscriminately killed by the ruling majority.
Joseph’s family sold what they owned to get him to South America and then he walked for many months—including a traumatizing trek through the wilderness of the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous, guerrilla-controlled jungles in the world—to get to our border in order to request asylum. When I asked why he came to the United States, he replied that he always thought of our country as the champion for human rights. He has now been in prison, in the middle of nowhere, for almost a year and will likely be deported, since Georgia’s immigration courts currently boast a 98% denial rate for asylum.
This week’s parsha, Va-era (G-d appeared), is the biblical narrative of Israelite’s liberation from slavery. According to the text, G-d appears to Moses in response to the groaning cries of the enslaved Israelites who are calling for help. G-d hears their crying, takes notice, and the encounter with human suffering moves G-d into a conversation with Moses. The sensory channels are also open for Moses as he is able to hear G-d, even though he is afraid to look. (Ex 3:6)
The ensuing conversations between G-d and Moses are rich with interpretive potential, as the reader witnesses an ongoing mirror-like relationship between man and the Divine, all in the midst of a national crisis. The flow of communication, the very act of listening and speaking, becomes a pathway toward freedom. G-d displays miracles through Moses to meet the power of Pharaoh: “see, I place you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.” (Ex 7:1) Moses and Aaron become the bridge between G-d, the Israelites, and Pharaoh.
My personal theology encompasses d’vekut and the power of prayer in direct conversation with G-d. What inspires me most about the narrative of Exodus is that G-d hears the cries of those suffering. I wonder if the way G-d hears is through the human bridges: the clergy willing to listen, the volunteers visiting prison booths, the pro-bono attorneys at the borders, the grandmas showing up at bus stops with supplies, the friends pooling together for revolving bond funds, the simple moments of sharing between strangers, the whisperings between people.
In his social justice commentary on Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, points out that tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed. “Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people—those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace.”
We have to ask ourselves, have we become like Pharaoh, whose behavior became so entrenched in hard-heartedness that he simply could not make a different choice? Have we, as a nation, become so good at incarcerating people that we use prison as the go-to-solution for dealing with complex humanitarian issues?
I pray that we hear the cries of the most vulnerable in our midst and have the courage to listen. May G-d appear, va’era, to those who are not visible. And may we become the human bridges for those who have been hidden away.
 Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world with almost 2.3 million people in prisons across the U.S., at a rate of 698 per 100,000 residents.
 Ibid. In 1994, the number of migrants in detention in the US was about 7,000 people per day. By 2019, that number grew to a daily average of 49,000 people. Notably, the number of people admitted to immigration detention in a year is much higher than the population detained on a particular day. The immigration detention system took in 396,448 people during the course of fiscal year 2018.