Op-Ed: Biblical History Repeating

by Rabbi Michael Berk, Congregation Beth Israel February 27, 2017


rabbiberk13-1Several months ago a student asked me about the Jewish attitude towards refugees. With the Executive Order signed Jan. 27, that question is now an urgent one. We can look to a brief passage in our Scriptures to find an answer.

The central story of the Israelites is the story of enslavement and G-d’s intervention as a Liberator. Ever since, Jews have kept the memory of slavery and redemption before us all the time. On Passover, when we retell our story at Seder, we repeat words each Israelite recited at the Temple in Jerusalem when he appeared there on the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost).

When the pilgrim gets to the temple, he approaches the priest with a basket of first fruits to offer Thanksgiving. He puts the basket down and recites a speech in which he summarized Israelite history (Deuteronomy 26:3-10). He starts with a phrase that has confounded scholars. It says something about an ancestor and an Aramean. Most translations say, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The pilgrim then recounts the history of the Israelites: something happened to the ancestor because of the Arameans. So the ancestor left and went to Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved us, we cried to G-d and G-d liberated us.

Who this “father” from the distant past? And what happened that caused the wandering? We know from archaeology that the Israelites first came into Canaan after a horrendous war in the 13th century BCE in the area of Haran. The local population was slaughtered. 1500 people were blinded. It was a very cruel war. So, Israeli Biblical scholar Israel Knohl says that the “father” in the verse refers to a group of people, the original Israelites, who ran away from this cruel war in Haran and fled to Canaan. The history of the Jewish people began with our collective parents running away from war. They were war refugees.They went to Egypt, where they were eventually enslaved. We were the “ger” – the strangers; the ones who had nothing.

Then the confession of the grateful Israelite continues: And now God has brought us into our own land where we don’t work for others, and we have some measure of security in life.

That’s the history of the Jewish people as the Israelite recited to the priest. We lost everything; we fled; we were enslaved; we were liberated and given our own land. It is important to note that in retelling the history, the Israelite doesn’t mention perhaps the most dramatic moment in the Exodus: the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai. Why omit that?

Simply, because it wasn’t important to the author of Deuteronomy. The point of the confession to the priest is to describe the contrast between the early history of the Israelites and their present situation. We started under terrible circumstances: we lost everything and had to flee for our lives. We ended up in Egypt. There, we were the “ger,” the stranger, refugee. We were slaves. But now! Now, you are thriving in the Land which the Eternal your God gave you. The author of Deuteronomy knew that when people become the haves, that’s precisely when they need to be reminded what it’s like to be a have-not. The whole ceremony in front of the priest, who doesn’t say a word during the entire ritual, was designed, as Passover was, to instill in the heart of every Jew gratitude to God for all He’s done for us. But that’s not the main point.

Which brings us to the final instruction for the pilgrim’s ritual. “… you shall rejoice, together with the Levite and the “ger,” the stranger in your midst…” What’s the message? You started as a ger, a destitute, homeless, refugee. Now you have land and prosperity. You are commanded to show your appreciation for what you have by sharing it with those who have nothing. Now that you are settled and earning a living; you must not forget where you came from; nor ignore those who are now like you were then: “gerim,” refugees, the vulnerable, weak. They are your brothers and sisters. They will share in your bounty. You are commanded to invite them into your home to celebrate your holidays with you. You may not be indifferent to them. 36 times the Torah will tell us to love the stranger, the refugee– because we were once refugees; and over 50 times the Torah will exhort us to take very good care of them. As far as Deuteronomy is concerned, that’s the main thing you need to know about Judaism and religion. Even more important than the giving of Torah is to know this – you cannot be indifferent to those around you who have nothing.

I think it’s obvious what I told that young student.

*An excerpt of this op-ed was publish in the March issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal, alongside four other opinions on the matter.


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