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Deuteronomy Telling Stories of Trauma for Healing and Compassion

By Rabbi Joshua Stanton
rabbi joshua stanton
Rabbi Joshua Stanton

The issue of immigration is capturing heightened attention around the world. A wave of immigrants, including many refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Libya, is finding its way through the Balkans into Europe. Others are crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, which all too often sink. In Austria, more than 70 bodies of dead immigrants were found in the back of a truck.

In the United States, Donald Trump is seizing headlines with plans to deport illegal immigrants, and other Presidential hopefuls are responding by redoubling their own rhetoric or decrying his plans. In a time of economic uncertainty, it is not surprising that immigration has become such a symbolically potent issue for “haves” who likely fear becoming “have-nots.” Many of us privileged to live in developed countries fear the prospects of being “overrun” by immigrants who could weigh down our economies–even when robust studies actually show just how much immigrants add to our standards of living. We may find ourselves motivated by fear rather than facts, by subconscious desires rather than conscious good will.

Immigrants have come to symbolize social change. In times of great insecurity and flux, it is easy to fall prey to the classic logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, the idea that because one event takes place after another, it was caused by the other. Even though immigration is taking place in some regions at an unprecedented rate, it is entering our consciousness even faster, because we are looking for simple reasons to explain very complicated trends. Immigrants are vulnerable targets, and blaming them enables us to avoid addressing even more complex issues (like globalization, currency exchange rates, prison reform, gun violence prevention, educational policy, social welfare policy, and taxation).

The Torah takes a radical stand on immigration – and compels us to take a radical stand as well. We cannot simply judge immigrants. We must in a sense become them for a moment, through ritual practice, so that we can more fully feel their pain and comprehend our own privilege. Though obviously not a position paper on contemporary immigration policy, the Torah is most certainly a call to empathy – and to awareness of how easy it is to become callous to the plight of those so fearful that they are willing to do anything to flee their countries of origin.

Deuteronomy 26 delineates a series of laws for the Israelites to observe upon their entrance to the Promised Land. Even as permanent residents, they are called upon to remember their past as immigrants and refugees. The ceremony upon entrance to the land is tied to agriculture, because of the semi-permanence that working the land gives us. Even, and especially, at this moment of self-assurance, we are instructed to remind ourselves that our sense of permanence came only after our ancestor’s wanderings.

When the biblical first fruits were harvested (later connected to the holy day of Shavuot), the Israelite was to take an offering of these fruits before the priests. He would then perform a carefully choreographed ritual, in which he would recite two seemingly contradictory sayings, one immediately before the priest took the basket of first fruits and the other afterwards.

Beforehand, the Israelite would say:

I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers to assign us. (Deuteronomy 26:3, W. Gunther Plaut translation, 2006 edition).

After the priest takes the basket of first fruits, the Israelite would say:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us…. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight… The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm… bringing us to this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26: 5- 9, W. Gunther Plaut translation, 2006 edition)

Before giving the offering, the Israelite is to claim permanent residency and the legitimacy of that status. Afterwards, the Israelite is to acknowledge that residency came only after the travails of slavery in Egypt and the miraculous path to freedom. Without God’s help, the Israelite would still be a slave. Therefore, the first fruits are not truly the Israelite’s at all, but God’s.

The famous words, “My father was a fugitive Aramean” are ones that we too should consider reciting – not merely at times of physical, agricultural harvest, when we feel particular connection specifically to the land in which we reside, but also personal and societal harvest, when we experience the bounty of the place in which we find ourselves. For those living in democracies, one of the ways this harvest comes is through open and free election of our representatives.

Though perhaps unusually strident at this early stage, we may see the beginning of primary season as the first fruits of what we might reap in the elections themselves. A telltale sign of social change, these first fruits seem unusually bitter. Perhaps they would be sweetened if our politicians likewise recited, “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” It could inspire in us all an empathy so very much lacking from the discourse on immigration—an empathy through which the Torah calls us all to responsibility.

Joshua Stanton is assistant rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., and former associate director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College.

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