Torah For Today: Exile and asylum

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Torah For Today: Exile and asylum

Rabbi Garry Wayland takes a topical issue and delves into Jewish texts for an Orthodox response

In his search for a burial place for his wife Sarah, Abraham declares the people of Heth that, “I am an immigrant [ger] and a resident [toshav] among you.” (Gen 23.4, trans. Living Torah). 

Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his seminal essay on interfaith relations, Confrontation, (1964), wrote that this declaration of Abraham, despite being apparently paradoxical – how can one live both transiently, as a foreigner, yet a permanent member of society? – was indeed the modus operandi for Jewish life: “We are rooted in the here and now reality as inhabitants of our globe, and yet we experience a sense of homelessness and loneliness as if we belonged somewhere else.”

Thus was Jewish life for millennia: to wander whilst retaining as sense of wonderment; to be rooted whilst en route; to invest whilst not really being entrenched. And, for millennia, the Jewish story was one of arrival, alienation, adaptation, assimilation and acculturation, affluence and then exile. 

We, unfortunately, have too many tales to tell the world about exile and asylum: Abraham’s attitude, perhaps, prepared us for what would be the unfortunate fate of many of our ancestors.

In the words of David Goodhart, we are both ‘somewheres’ and ‘everywheres’: we appreciate the value of a home, of roots, of a past, but at the same time, value the experiences of those with a past different from our own, of a fluidity greater than any one time or place. 

We are blessed to be, nowadays more often than not, on the receiving end of those begging for asylum, for those without a somewhere who have been everywhere, seen everything. 

There are, of course, no easy solutions in a world that is becoming more fraught for communities and dangerous for individuals, but Abraham’s attitude is surely one that can guide us and the wider community in dealing with those begging for help with compassion and empathy.

  •   Rabbi Garry Wayland is a teacher and educator for US Living and Learning

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