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My American Citizenship Exam #696

10/08/2021 11:04:00 AM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Noah
“Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1)

American Citizenship Exam

At about 8:20 am last Tuesday, my wife and I approached the parking lot of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Holtsville.

As we sat for a few minutes, Patte quizzed me on some of the tougher questions among the 100, which immigration officials could potentially ask me as part of the American citizenship exam.

How many amendments are there?

Who was Susan B. Anthony?

What is the rule of law?

I felt confident as I entered and presented my documents.

“Sit in the middle of the room, and wait for your name to be called,” instructed a clerk. I socially distanced, sat and waited my turn. 

To that point, I viewed the process as routine. There is hardly a Canadian living in the shadow of the United States who doesn’t know the answer to most of the American citizenship questions.

What are the five US territories where residents are US citizens?

What are the two longest rivers in the United States?

What are two rights of three declared in the Declaration of Independence?

With my cell phone turned off, I began to look around the room at those waiting with me.

Of the 40 or so, I noticed most appeared to come from other continents. Lawyers and interpreters quizzed their clients in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Creole and African-accented French.

I heard Spanish, Italian and Russian.

I observed different skin shades, different genders and a multitude of religious symbols.

The excitement was palpable.

So many come from across the globe eager to become part of this country’s narrative — some escaping oppressive regimes, others looking to embrace free speech. Some hope to re-unite with family members, which others are simply thirsty for an opportunity to succeed.

And, for the first time in this 18-month course of never-ending paperwork and time passing slowly, I felt distinctly excited and proud to be part of the process.

After 15 years of living in the United States, there I was, situated where the heart of this country truly dwells — within the hopes of immigrants looking for a new start.

And I sensed God winking. Indeed, this is the week in our Torah reading where God initiates the idea of diversity, hope and the uniqueness of languages and cultures.

This is the week of the Noah story. It is one of the first biblical narratives we learn as children.

As the parashah opens, God concludes that the world is evil and must be destroyed. Noah is commanded to build an ark to house a multitude of animals. A flood ensues. After the waters subside, civilization is reconstituted, and a rainbow appears to remind the world that God will never again destroy creation.

Seven commandments are given to all humanity. We are introduced to difficult topics such alcoholism and sexual abuse. So much to consider and study.

But what touched me most this week was the story of Babel.

What a lesson for our time.

After the flood, as the world re-populated, the Torah tells us that “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1).

Humanity launched a unified plan to build a tower so tall that, in time, it would eventually overarch God. 

God viewed this with some concern, for it appeared that this homogenous society focused more on status and materialism than on justice and compassion.

As the Midrash  our collection of oral lessons and legends recounts, “If a man fell off the tower, everyone would keep on working, but if a brick fell off, the people would cry, ‘Oh, how soon can we get another?” 

So, what did God do? God divided humanity into 70 languages  and no group could understand another.

Did this generate misunderstanding, friction, and violence? Yes, it did. But it also created amazing opportunities.

Different cultures and languages emerged. Diverse ways to worship were kindled. Distinctive art, culture, music, dance, theatre and thought developed.

Each year, as this diversity narrative is read, I reflect upon the potential of all cultures, thinking, “What a wonderful world.”

The Babel story came to mind as I watched future citizens about to be called to answer some of our country’s central questions.

What is one reason colonists came to America?

What is freedom of religion?

A lot of people have asked me, “Why become an American citizen now?” That is probably the politest way that question has been posed.

I answer, “There has never been a more important time.”

This country has been good to me. It has provided me with inspiring work, it has graced me with good friends and colleagues — it has blessed me with family.

As many of you are aware, I received the letter to appear in Holtsville, on the afternoon of September 11, as I returned from participating at memorial services remembering those who suffered and perished on 9/11.

I sensed God’s wink.

I was not required to become a citizen. There are problems and challenges which plague this country each day. I am a fan of neither major political party.

Yet, in spite of all of its divisions, I believe this to be one of the best countries in the world. And democracy is worth standing up for.

In a week or two, I will receive my date to appear in a court to pledge allegiance. I will hold dual citizenship — Canadian and American. It is something I never thought I would do.

As I raise my hand on that day, I will think of the crowded waiting room in Holtsville and its spirit of optimism and hope.

Being a citizen is demanding. It redefines who you are.

There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Name one.

What are two responsibilities assigned to only United States citizens?

But, like the biblical character, Nachshon ben Aminadab, who first stepped into the waters on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, I believe that when we pursue the Jewish value of Kadima — moving forward — we help make the world around us, and ourselves better.

It’s a chance worth taking, as the Torah commands us to “Choose Life.”

This is where my life is — to work for just solutions from within, rather than passively observe from the shores.

It is what God inspires us all to do. 

Not over there — but right here at home.

“Through the night with the light from above.”

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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