Parashat Vayehi 5779
Tonight, I want to tell the tale of ancestry and migration.
This is on my mind because of the ongoing conversations around immigration, the possibility of a government shutdown that will last for a very long time, the fact that unaccompanied migratory minors sit in detention centers at the US/Mexico border with no clear path to entry into the United States, that there are still parents and children separated from one another because of our country’s policies, the way that asylum seekers and political refugees are being cast as villains, those who would take our hard-won freedom from us.
My heart is heavy because of the way we are treating the stranger among us, and so I’ve looked to our tradition and our heritage this week as an offering that I pray will lighten our perspective, because our perspectives are not just some loosely held set of opinions. They are rooted in centuries of history. My intent is not to preach with the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other. My intent is not to bludgeon you with a perspective, proudly proclaiming “This is why we as Jews have to care about the immigrants. And so let freedom ring!” Rather, I want to take a softer approach, telling three stories, which highlight the way that our own biblical story and our relatively recent history informs us, guiding us to a more embracing, loving, and inclusive vision of how we could be living as Americans in a community that proudly welcomes the stranger among us.
When we tell our family stories, especially when we come from Jewish and European roots, the story fits a pattern. A great-grandparent, a grandparent, a parent left Russia, made his or her way across the Atlantic, came in through Elis Island, and then on and on, till we reach today.
My own family story varies from that, in that one part of my family came in through Galveston Island, in Texas.
So first, a tale of two of my ancestors and their migration history:
My father, whose name is Michael, was named after his great-grandfather, also Michael. That Michael was born on October 12, 1866 in Bavaria, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at that time. When he turned 20 years old (1886), he traveled to Bremen, and from there emigrated to the United States, entering through New York City. I have a high-resolution scan of the 132-year-old manifest of the boat that Michael took to get from Europe to the United States. The document is remarkable to see. Of import: Michael’s reason for migration is not noted.
My mother’s grandfather, Hyman Phillips, was born Hyman Philipufski. He changed his name upon entry into the United States. He’s the one who came through Galveston, Texas. Hyman was born on December 15, 1893 in Suwałki, a town about the population of Pittsfield located in Northeastern Poland. When my great-grandfather was born, Suwałki was under the control of the Russian Empire, just one Tsar away from the Bolshevik Revolution. I remember my great-grandfather. He told stories about the old country to many in my family. He had three other brothers, two of whom were here in the United States, one who was in Mexico City. Hyman and his brothers all settled here in North America successfully, opening different shops and businesses. They each married and began families. According to family lore, my great-grandfather sent for a sister and his mother to emigrate. After the sister and mother arrived, the two of them struggled with life here. They went back to Europe sometime in the late 1920s, early 1930s. The family lost touch with them after that.
My two ancestors were born 27 years apart. Still, they were a part of one of the greatest mass migrations in modern history. Between 1881 and 1914, around 35 million people for different faith and nationalities migrated across various international borders. Of those 35 million, 22 million came to the United States, and some 2 million of them were Jewish.
Why so much movement? Historian Jonathan Sarna explains it best: “For Jews, violent attacks known as pogroms sparked many a decision to risk life and fortune in the new world, but the root causes of mass migration lay deeper—in overpopulation, oppressive legislation, economic dislocation, forced conscription, wretched poverty, and crushing despair, coupled with tales of wonderous opportunity in America and offers of cut-rate tickets from steamship companies plying the Atlantic” (American Judaism, 152.)
My great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather were subject to larger forces. Their migration because of external pressures, pushed them to look for better, safer, freer, and more prosperous lives than they had in Bavaria or Suwałki.
In looking at these two stories from my own family’s history, along with our own people’s history, it becomes clear that there is nothing new under the sun. Stories we tell about our ancestors—especially as the Jewish people—are about travels and migration, which is also a major theme that concerned our biblical authors.
Consider the story we’ve been telling from the Torah, as of late. This week’s parashah is Vayechi, the final chapters of the Book of Genesis. For the last several weeks, we’ve been telling Joseph’s story. It’s a story of a boy sold into slavery, brought down to Egypt, who eventually rises to a position of leadership and power among the Egyptians, among a foreign nation. The region falls into profound famine, and Joseph’s brothers arrive one day, having migrated from Canaan looking for food and a safe place to live. Famine—an uncontrollable situation has brought his brothers to Joseph, just as environmental factors and political pressures pushed our families around Europe and eventually into the United States. Joseph provides his brothers food, once he reveals himself to his brothers, they bring their father, Jacob, down to Egypt as well. There Jacob dies; the only patriarch to die outside the Land of Canaan. There, Joseph and his brothers, along with their families, live the rest of their lives, finding safety and prosperity for their generation.
The themes in this story call out to us. They are as familiar as they are current. The story is one people around us still experience. Consider our neighbors who work here in the United States so they can send money back to family in other countries, and who strive to bring those members of their families to live here. They are Joseph. We have Josephs here in the Berkshires, working in our restaurants, in our hotels and inns, and on our farms. They have come ahead, and established their lives here so that they help and provide for family affected by forces no one can control.
The biblical authors are telling us something: they are guiding us to a sense of compassion and love for the stranger, for we were strangers in a strange land. We are commanded 36 times in our Torah to love and care for the stranger. Beyond the legal aspects, the Joseph narrative is important. The biblical authors are reminding us about the vulnerability that a migrant feels. Who knows if you will find safety in this new land. Who knows if you will be able to get resources to your loved ones you left behind. But you are dedicated to trying. The biblical authors are saying that we are the migrants, we are the service workers and day laborers who have come ahead to try to improve our family’s lot.
Our family histories remind us as well about our heritage as migrants. We too have experiences in the not-so-distant past in which we were the ones who were other, who were stranger, who were unwelcome in this new land.
We are caught up in a world that is being turned over by a variety of pressures that is much outside of our control. Dr. Sarna’s description of the reasons for the great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries read similar to the challenges of today: overpopulation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, gang violence, economic dislocation, wretched poverty, crushing despair, and dramatic environmental challenges caused by global climate change are all reasons caravans head out from one place to come to another. These caravans are comprised of people who cannot stay where they are, and who long to find a destination where they can be safe, free, and prosper.
Our tradition is illustrative: The authors of Genesis presumed relative free movement among nations, highlighting the way that those strangers were brought in and taken care of, when they had to migrate because of environmental factors and economic pressures. It’s on this front of migration that our history speaks to us, calling out as relevant today: We are called to compassion, mercy, love, and care for the stranger, for the Jewish soul is that of a foreigner’s.
As people of faith and conscience, I want to suggest that each of us tonight consider our tradition, and the impact that should have on our stance toward others around us. For when we do, we may find a voice that gives us energy, hope, and direction to carry out that often cited command: Love the stranger as if he or she were you, yourself.