Abraham: Immigrant or Refugee?©

Abraham: Immigrant or Refugee?©

Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Lech Lecha 2018/5779

How and when did your ancestors come to America?

If you are Ashkenazi (from Eastern and Western Europe), you actually have an interesting connection to Ashkenazim in Israel:  almost all of us came to a new land Israel and the United States and Canada, on a boat.  Almost all of us had to cross a body of water to get here.  

I have shared my family's story of immigration – my parents were both born in Europe.  My mother's family came from Poland in the 1960's.  My father's side came earlier, in a different way.  After the war, my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, after a long courtship of less than a week, got married, and soon after, had my father.  My grandmother received a letter from an American Jew with her maiden name.  The American thought my grandmother was his cousin.  Knowing that she wasn't, but also knowing that this might be her only chance to leave Europe, she took the trip and the Visa that went with it, took her son, and left for America.  Her husband would have to find his way to join them.  I knew about that three year period they spent apart because my father could tell me about it, but I never learned, what did my grandfather do in Europe during this time.  

Over Sukkot, I learned the story from him; how his childhood home was taken over by a non-Jewish family; having no home, no family, he wandered from country to country.  He told me how he went from country to country, taking odd jobs, one of them working in a coal mine.  And this was almost his ticket out – Canada was looking for coal miners, and they government interviewed him.  He was one of the only people who actually told the truth about his coal mining experience.  But they asked him one last question – do you have any family?  He said, Yes, my wife and child are in America.  So the interviewer said, “That's a shame, we can't take you, because we know you're going to cross the border to be with them, that's what I would do to be with my family.”  After that, he had a friend who swore he could get them out if they went to Paris.  Now some of you have met my grandfather – he's a good looking guy, and back then, with his blue eyes and dark hair, he was a catch.  He wrote my grandmother telling him about the possibility. She wrote back, “if you go to Paris, the next letter you get will be divorce papers.”  Finally, through a stroke of luck, he was able to come to America to rejoin his wife, and a son whose three years of his young life he missed.  Why was it so difficult?  He swears there was a quota on Jews.

In hindsight, we know what happened in Europe after World War II, but imagine if you were a survivor of the Holocaust – why couldn't it happen again?  He traveled from country to country, with no home, no support, no citizenship.  And I realized something – I've always said my parents were immigrants to this country, but it's actually more than that – they were refugees.  

I have to say – it was a weird realization.  Think about the adjectives that come to mind when you think of the word 'refugee'.  Now think about the word immigrant.  There is a difference – we think of immigrants as coming with something – an identity, maybe money, but when we think of refugees, we think of people who come with nothing.  But they have full and rich identities and backgrounds.  A journalist Scott Simon wrote, “I've talked to people in refugee camps, in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. "I'm an engineer," they'll say as you meet them, or, "Really, I'm a teacher," or, "I'm a mother," or, "I grow rice," or, "I go to school." It's often what they tell you first, even though they've just survived bombs, raids, famines or massacres. They want you to know they are full, flesh and blood human beings, not just men and women who bear a label: survivor, victim, migrant, refugee.”1  Think about Albert Einstein, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who were both refugees from Nazi Germany.

The definition of refugee, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is the following:  A refugee is a person who has been forced to flee their home country due to persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (e.g., members of the LGBTQ community). The persecution a refugee experiences may include harassment, threats, abduction or torture.2 

But Abraham isn't a refugee right?  We don't know much about Abraham until God speaks to him and gives him that famous command, Lech Lecha M'Artzecha (Go forth from your native land).  But the midrash fills in the blanks.  The midrash tells a story of an Avram, a boy who challenged his father's idolatry.  His father Terah brings Abraham to the local king named Nimrod.  Nimrod actually throws Avram into a fire because of his beliefs in the one true God.  God magically saves Avram from this fire, but one would assume that Avram didn't want to wait until another incident with king Nimrod.  Even though Avram responds to a call to leave his home, he is not just running to a new home, but fleeing from his old home. (Genesis Rabbah 38:13)

Avram seems to fit the definition for refugee, and if we look at Avram through this lens, our story changes.  

We are introduced to Avram in this way (Genesis 12:1 - 3):

וַיֹּאמֶר יי אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ׃

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה׃


I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.

וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה׃


I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”

Now that we look at Avram through this lens, I wondered, why does God promise him a great nation, blessings, and a great name?

Rashi comments: (AND I WILL MAKE OF YOU A GREAT NATION) — Since traveling is the cause of three things — it decreases (breaks up) family life, it reduces one’s wealth and lessens one’s renown — he therefore needed these three blessings: that God should promise him children, wealth and a great name (Genesis Rabbah 39:11).

And if we go back to the first line of the parashah, why does God tell Avram to leave his father's house first?  Rabbi David Kimchi, a famous medieval commentator, says that it's hard to leave one's country where one has lived for many years, all the more so to leave one's native land, and even harder to leave one's family and go to a strange land.  

We often times think of Avram going to a new land with a smile on his face and not a care in the world, but I imagine his journey was filled with great fear and uncertainty.  

How difficult must it have been to leave his father’s house.  I think back to my grandfather – in the concentration camps, my grandfather's father promised that they would get their business back, their home back, their lives back.  

Later on in the parashah, when Avram establishes himself, he goes to war to help save his nephew Lot.  It is in chapter 14 when Avram is given an epithet, Avram HaIvri – Avram the Hebrew.  What is an Ivri?  Rashi says Ever means the other side of the Euphrates – that's right, Avram also had to cross a body of water to get to his new land.  And the Midrash adds another point:  R. Judah said: [Ha’Ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side (ever) while he was on the other side (ever).

He was 'the other', even after he lifted himself up.  

And so I think about us – Jews or Hebrews, the people who crossed over the river, some of us later than others.  We still carry that name, Hebrew; and we have to ask ourselves, who are we?  Do we remember what it was like to be Abraham?  Do be our ancestors, to have nowhere to go. Lech Lecha is not just an external journey, but an internal journey.  The Hassidic commentator the Mei HaShiloach said that Lech Lecha means, 'Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”  

And I think we have to ask ourselves why we are still called Hebrews even though we aren't refugees anymore.  What is our authentic self?  What are we meant to be?  In a time when refugees are becoming a lightning rod for the anger of Americans, we have to ask, can we bring others to our side, just like someone did for us?  

My blessing for us is we remember our name, that we remember our story, and that we live our lives knowing that our past informs our present, and the future is in our hands.  

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