Friday, 1 November 2013

Refugees and Parashat Toldot - A Sermon

In the middle of this week’s story we take time out from the internal machinations of the singular family we are now following in our journey through the book of Genesis and look at this family’s relationship with the society surrounding them.

There a lot to learn from a passage steeped in the issues that animate so much contemporary political, economic and social policy debate.


There is a famine, a famine as severe as the famine that drove Abraham from the land to Egypt.

There is a presumed connection to the famines that drive Jacob’s sons and eventually Jacob himself in search of food in Egypt.

But Isaac only goes as far as Gerar.

God commands him not to leave the land.

Isaac, of all the Biblical patriarchs is the one you feel who would most want to simply stay put.

His father dug wells, filled in by the famers of Gerar, and Isaac redigs them.

He calls them again by the names his father used.

His son Jacob is commanded to go and find his wife at exactly the same spot Isaac’s bride was discovered.

His other son Esau marries outside the close community Isaac recognises as his own – vatihiyena morat ruach – and it embittered the spirit of his father.


You get the sense that Isaac wants nothing more than to be secure among his own, with the comforts of the familiar and the well known.


But that’s not the story that plays out.

Isaac is based in Gerar and it’s an uneasy eistence. The local men enquire after his wife and Isaac yarei leimor and he was scared to admit they were married, ‘She’s my sister’ he responds. It all gets a little embarrassing as Isaac and Rebecca are caught canoodling,

‘What have you done to us,’ the local King wants to know – ‘one of the people might have lain with her and it would have been a disaster.’

But it sounds exactly like the story of a stranger in a strange land, awkward in a social milieu they don’t understand and don’t know to trust.


Isaac prospers, vayelech holech ad ki gadol meod, he gets richer and richer until he is truly wealthy – but this, the Torah teaches us, attracts first the jealousy of the locals and then their hatred and eventually the threat of expulsion.


It takes the local King to halt the lynching that seems to be building up; Avimelech arrives to calm matters down, with his Chief of Staff and Minister.

The Jew relies on the protection of the people in the positions of power, from the men on the street.


It’s leaders who can recognise that peace between these differing communities is entirely possible and even to everyone’s benefit.

Perhaps Avimelech is a follower of trickle down theories of economic growth – if the migrants do well, that’s going to better the lot of everyone.

We’ll do no harm to you as you have done no harm to us, says Avimelech.

Isaac is vouchsafed security, Avimelech’s hand is strengthened – he’s the peacemaker.

He finds the win-win outcome, Avimelech and Isaac feast and together and depart b’shalom.


It’s an old story with echoes through the ages.

The incoming migrant class, seeking escape from harshness, come to a land where their presence is a source of conflict, even as – and perhaps most especially – as they/we succeed.

The immigrants aren’t sure how to behave – who to trust, are they, their families, their property going to be safe? They don’t know and it can lead to behaviour which is simply wrong.

Their insecurities are fuelled by the vandalism of the local community, attacks on their property, their ancestral inheritance.

There is a nervousness and insecurity on behalf of these economic migrants, bogus asylum seekers, Polish plumbers, refugees from Somalia, Jews – it takes a while to learn to negotiate the norms and mores of a host society.

And there is impatience, jealousy among the host society

Ironically the more the incoming migrant class prosper, the more jealousy they attract – perhaps they point out to the locals what is possible with a little hard work and ingenuity, and no-one likes having their own cosy failures shoved back in their face.

And always, lurking under the surface is the threat of expulsion.


So often it takes the cooler heads of government, judiciary and the rest of mitigate the fears felt on the street and ensure


Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose.


Well there are a couple of new elements to our contemporary engagement with this question.

The welfare state – funded by the locals – is clearly hugely significant. Handouts, medical care and the like change the  impact of new arrivals in an existing society, especially in the first years when the new arrivals are awkwardly still discovering how to behave in a society as complex as our own.


And then there is our own role.

Still a little nervous, a little concerned by the antisemitism, jealousy and the like which still bedevils the life of the Jew, but it’s been a hundred years since we were the archetypal outsiders in contemporary British society

We’ve done the first generations, the ones where it’s difficult to know how to negotiate the local norms and mores.

We have Jews in parliament, in the judiciary, in the media – we’ve got the local mores down pretty well now.

And we’ve prospered – just look at this glorious house of worship.

And we’ve attracted our fair share of jealousy, vandalism, hatred and attack.


But the times have changed.
In the context of the challenges of immigration, and otherness, in contemporary Britain we Jews are the insiders amongst whom other, newer refugees have to shuffle their way into an ever more varied multicultural mix.


So what to do?

We should be on the side of the incomers, the refugees, partly because it was once us, and partly because it could, so easily be us again, even now, even still.

But more because we know that incomers are good for society, we/they increase the wealth for all.


We should also have a tremendous empathy for those who have long since made their homes. We should understand how jealousy builds and the troubles it can cause, and that’s even without factoring the challenges a Welfare State brings to bear on what has been a complex challenge for three millennia – or more.


The aim isn’t to take the side of one against the other.

The aim is to deepen our understanding of the competing challenges of what it might mean to live a life as a contemporary British Jew, both a part of and apart from the society in which we find ourselves.


The challenge, as Rambam put it, is to find and strengthen the voice advocating for the win-win, the shvil hazahav – the golden mean. To find ways to increase the strength of those able to bring the new communities into relationships of shalom, peace and allow them to have their successes that do nothing to weaken our own possibilities to thrive

And for that reason it’s worth returning, again and again to these extraordinary stories,


Shabbat shalom


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