Altrove/Elsewhere – Refugees

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

We now find ourselves between two significant moments in the Jewish calendar: the 14th of Adar and the 15th of Nisan; in other words, the holidays of Purim and Passover. Both of these holidays ask us to remember important moments in Jewish history: moments in which the Jewish people found themselves in a vulnerable position in a country not their own; moments in which they found themselves at the mercy of sweeping historical events and political institutions much larger and more powerful than themselves.

One of the main mitzvot of both holidays consists in retelling and rehearing the stories themselves. These two narratives can have a special resonance for us this year, especially if we heed the Haggadah’s famous exhortation that “In each and every generation a person must see themselves as if they had personally left Egypt.” Whether as exiles in Persia, victims of the Babylonian Exile, or as an enslaved underclass in Egypt, we found ourselves in the position of displaced people and refugees in both of these moments of our history.

The Meghillat Esther makes no secret about the exilic status of Mordecai and his adopted daughter, Hadassah/Esther. They are introduced to us in the following way: “In the fortress of Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjamite. [Kish] had been exiled ( haglah ) from Jerusalem in the group ( hagolah ) that was carried into exile ( hagletah ) along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile ( heglah ) by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon” (Esther 2:5-6). In this introduction, forms of the the verb meaning “to remove, to exile” – galah – appear four times in one sentence. Such elaborate repetition can only mean that the text wants us to meditate on the displaced status of Mordecai and his family. If we know nothing else about them, we must know that they are exiles. The vulnerability and plight of the Jews arises from the very fact of their refugee status in a foreign land.

The Hagaddah is no less subtle in its insistence on the calamitous consequences of displacement from one’s homeland. The Magid section of the seder – the part of the service in which the story of the Exodus is recounted and elaborated – commences with the famous words: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Thus begins the experiential reliving of our enslavement and deliverance: with the taste of exile. It is not only the poverty of the food that signals our former debasement, but the place in which we ate it, which the text specifies: b’ar‘a deMitzrayim, (in the land of Egypt).

This year, as we read and reflect upon these two moments of our ancient history, we would do well to reflect upon the plight of the millions of present-day refugees and exiles. The story of Purim can urge us to action to protect endangered minorities, as Mordecai and Esther did; while the recounting of the Exodus at Passover can help us not only to empathize with the refugees of today as we “see ourselves” as the exiles we were, but push us to action, as well. For it is no accident that the words immediately following the aforementioned opening to the Magid are: kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhol (All who are hungry, let them come and eat!).

*Daniel Leisawitz is the Director of the Italian Studies Program at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.

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