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Monday, 26 October 2015

The Jewish Responsibility to the Refugee Crisis

Daf Yomi Nazir 65


The world is in crisis.  As a result of the wars in Syria and Iraq, we are currently witnessing the greatest number of refugees and displaced persons since WWII.  There are literally millions of people wandering the planet, often with tragic consequences, such as three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who tore at hearts worldwide when images were displayed of his body being washed ashore in Turkey.

Many in the Jewish community have declared that we are not doing enough for these refugees, recalling how the nations of the world turned their backs on us as we tried to escape Nazi Germany, in vain.  Others have blasted the comparison: after all, the Nazis had vowed to exterminate us, whereas most of the current refugees have simply been driven out of their homes, with no clear threat to their lives.

What indeed is our responsibility as Jews? 

Mishnah: One who initially finds a dead body lying in a regular manner may relocate it together with some surrounding earth.
Gemara: What is the Scriptural source for taking some earth along with the body?  Rav Yehuda taught: When Joseph lay on his deathbed, he instructed his family that when the Children of Israel would leave Egypt, they should “carry me from Egypt,” meaning that ‘carried along with me’ should be some earth ‘from Egypt.’

Why would Joseph want our people to take some earth from Egypt along with his body?  Just take him out of galus (exile) and bury him where he belongs, in the Holy Land!  His message was: you can’t separate me from Egypt, that’s part of who I am. 

Some people like to believe that they can turn their backs on their past and ignore it, or psychotherapeutically talk themselves out of it and make it disappear from who they are.  Joseph was teaching us that you are who you are, as a result of all your experiences in life, both personally and nationally.  The earth that will accompany you from Egypt is a reminder that an integral part of your national narrative includes Egypt.

And indeed, Egypt figures frequently throughout the Torah and Jewish practice.  We mention the Exodus throughout our prayers; we remember it when we make Kiddush on Shabbos; it appears in the First Commandment (of the Ten); and we have an entire festival of Pesach to commemorate our slavery and liberation. 

But its impact is even greater than the Exodus alone.  With rights and freedoms come responsibilities.  In the Torah, we are enjoined to “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”  We must be kind to others, because we know what it feels like to be a new immigrant.

Wait a sec, seriously?  The Torah seems to imply we were immigrants in a foreign country and we lovingly recall our experience, which should motivate us to treat foreigners similarly.  But that’s obviously a completely distorted romanticization of the story!  We weren’t mere immigrants trying to make a buck in a new country.  We were slaves who were beaten mercilessly each day!  Our babies were drowned in the Nile!  Or sent to Pharaoh who bathed in their blood or used them to fill ditches!  It was the first genocide of our people!  Not something we remember fondly.  The Torah should have stated, “Don’t butcher foreign workers like they did to you in Egypt!”

But no, the Torah teaches, “Love the stranger.”  You’re right, says the Torah, there’s no parallel between your time as foreigners and the stranger in your land, but you must go above and beyond.  Your experience should have made you so acutely aware of any suffering whatsoever that you will now go and teach the world about kindness and morality.  And that’s the message we must remember during the present refugee crisis.  It’s not a Holocaust.  The Holocaust was genocidal.  But the fact that we experienced it makes us more sensitive to any suffering in the world.

Likewise throughout your life.  Every pain and tragedy the Almighty has sent your way is part of who you are.  We don’t write it off and talk it out of our system.  You are stronger today and more capable of assisting others because of what you have endured. 

Chasidic philosophy contrasts isskafia and isshapcha.  The former is repression of who you truly are; the latter is transformation of who you truly are – for better or for worse – for the perfection of yourself and the world.  Similarly, the ultimate teshuvah involves transforming all your past misdeeds, utilizing them for the good, called “zedonos naasim lo k’zochios” – transgressions become merits!  We don’t wish ourselves away; we transform ourselves using every piece of who we are – every thought, emotion, experience, and memory.


You are the product of your physical and spiritual genetic make-up plus everything that has happened to you from the moment you were born.  May you use your entire self – from your proudest moments to those you wish you could turn the clock back on – to fulfil your Divine mission on Earth!