Ki Tavo: Remember That We, Too, Were Refugees.

“My father was a wandering Aramean” is a declaration familiar to us from the Passover seder.   Taken from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, it begins a formulaic “brief history of the Jewish people” narrative that Israelites were obliged to recite when bringing the sacrifice of the first fruits.  [Deuteronomy 26:1-11].  

The word “wandering” is, however, an unfortunate translation of the word actually used in the Torah -- “״אבד. “Wandering” can be fairly neutral, as in “sojourning” or “moving from place to place” without necessarily implying danger, distress, and hardship.  But “״אבד– means “lost.” 

Our leading biblical commentators interpreted this word in the sense of “lost sheep,” “homeless,” “in exile,” “poverty stricken,” or “forced to move from place to place as a refugee.”  [The Commentators’ Bible, Deuteronomy, M.Carasik, Ed. 173-174.]  Thus, when we think of our own history, we should not just remember our ancestors in slavery but as desperate “wandering” refugees.   Of course, our people’s experience in this regard was not limited to the Exodus but has recurred again and again.  Is there any other people with as much painful knowledge, over millennia, of what it means to be persecuted refugees?  

This week the “wanderings” of two other peoples have been prominent in American news.  First, the horrible plight of the Syrian refugees.  The photos and interview accounts are heartbreaking, as huge numbers of desperate people have fled civil war and are risking everything to reach refuge. Germany is to be praised for accepting many thousands, knowing full well that doing so serves as a siren call for untold numbers of others sure to follow.  

The other migrant story in our news concerns the position of poll-leader Donald Trump.  Trump has made curtailing illegal immigration to America a pillar of his candidacy.  It is certain to figure prominently in upcoming debates, and perhaps in next year's election.   

Both of these news stories take on additional resonance in light of the Torah. More often than any other commandment, the Torah insists that we Jews treat the widow and the orphan well because we remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt.  The “my father was” declaration was surely intended to remind us not only to be grateful for our current refuge, but that we must extend that refuge to others whenever and wherever possible.  

May we, and the millions of refugees around the world, experience a Shabbat of shalom.  May we also work to bring refuge to all those who seek it ... because we also remember what it was like to be lost and homeless.



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb