Experiencing Exile

Experiencing Exile December 5, 2018

Rabbi Leora AbelsonParashat MIketz (Genesis 41:4-44-17)

By Rabbi Leora Abelson

A caravan makes its way through the desert. Exhausted and hungry, families travel from a place of hardship and make their way towards hope and uncertainty. Traveling towards a land of plenty, a land of opportunity, they seek the well-being, the survival, of their families. They know not what awaits them at their destination: welcome or hostility. They are prepared to offer everything they have in exchange for food, for safety. Will the plenty be shared? Will they be turned away? Worst, will they be met with violence?

This is a contemporary story. Exhausted, hungry people make the impossible decision to leave their homes because the only thing more unbearable than leaving is staying. In the words of Warsan Shire, “you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay.”

This is an age-old story. Our ancestors have migrated in search of food, in search of survival, for tens of thousands of years. Humans have always migrated, navigating different climates, cultures, languages, crossing geographic and political borders, remaking our lives in new places.

This is a Jewish story. It is in our history; our ancestors have fled and remade their homes, fled and remade their homes, sometimes more than once in the same generation. Seeking safety, seeking survival.

This story is also in the Torah. In this week’s parsha, Miketz (Genesis 41:1 – 44:17), the eleven sons of our ancestor Jacob, renamed Israel, travel from Canaan to Mitzrayim (Egypt) in search of food. Famine has devastated all the lands, but due to the divinely inspired dream interpretation and management skills of Pharaoh’s right hand man (who happens to be Jacob’s twelfth son, Joseph, though his family does not know it), there is food in Mitzrayim. Jacob sends his sons with silver, hoping they will buy food and bring it home again. But in just a few chapters, the entire family will uproot from their home, cross a political border, navigate a new culture, and remake their lives in this new place.

When they do, (in next week’s parsha,) it is a joyful, hopeful journey. Joseph, and even Pharaoh, promise them comfort and abundance in their new home. All traveling together, their sense of home, belonging, and community are maintained. They are given their familiar vocations. They are able to build their communities and their lives. Would that every sojourner, every migrant, seeking survival and safety in a new place be met with such a welcome.

And yet, the welcome shown to Jacob’s family is shadowed by our knowledge that the people will never be fully welcomed, and will eventually be enslaved and experience tremendous suffering at the hands of the empire. The Torah foreshadows this with the verb root yud-resh-daled, meaning “to go down,” which it uses to describe the movement from Canaan to Mitzrayim. While there may be a geographical echo – they had to travel south – this verb certainly has a theological echo.

When Jacob tells his sons to go to Mitzrayim, he says, “רדו־שמה,” go down there (Gen 42:2). Rashi, drawing on an ancient midrash, writes about that verse, “He did not say l’chu, go. [r’du] hints at the 210 years that they are enslaved in Mitzrayim, for the numerical value of r’du is 210.”

The ancient rabbis understand the Torah’s language not only to be offering a hint of what is to come, but also to be calling attention to the magnitude of the moment: it is not just about Jacob’s immediate family fleeing famine, it is the moment when bnei Yisrael, the people of Israel, enter into exile.

The verb yud-resh-daled can be read metaphorically, as a comment about the experience of uprooting, of leaving a place of home and ancestors, a place of connection with God and community, and traveling to an uncertain, if hopeful, future. The experience of Jacob’s family – the initial fear of leaving their home; the uncertainty; the warm welcome shadowed by the readers’ knowledge of what is to come – reminds us how uncertain any experience of migration is, whether coerced or freely chosen, and how the experiences of home and exile often cannot be neatly mapped onto a binary of good and bad, dangerous and safe, hopeful and desperate.

Leaving home, leaving a place of connection to land, history, ancestors, and community, is painful. Leaving home when home isn’t safe is terrifying. Traveling to a new place might be hopeful, might be laden with possibility; it might also be uncertain, scary. It requires tremendous courage and faith.

For weeks, you may have searched for news stories about the caravan of individuals and families travelling from desperate poverty, persecution, and violence in their Central American homes, seeking survival and safety in the United States. They were stopped at our border, and thousands of them are living in temporary outdoor camps, awaiting the chance to seek asylum here. In a joint statement, representatives of the caravan wrote, “It’s been hard leaving our countries and part of our families behind, exposing our children and walking through unknown places just to have the option of living in the United States or in any other country that offers us the opportunity to work honestly and offers a better future for our kids.”

The hostility and violence with which they have been met at the border brings to mind another way of thinking about exile, found in Hasidic theology and expressed by the Hasidic master Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter in a commentary on this parsha. We can be exiled not from land, not from home or place of origin, but from connection with and awareness of Divinity. Divine goodness is in everything, but it can be hidden. And when we hide from it, we are capable of perpetrating great harm.

In what ways do we hide from Divine goodness? By not seeing it in our fellow human beings; by treating them without the dignity due to one created b’tzelem Elokim, in the Divine image. How does Divinity become obscured? When we participate in systems that degrade the Godliness in humans, creatures, and our planet. I recently learned that the activist organization Mijente is working to expose the collaboration between Amazon and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We send God into hiding when we buy Chanukah gifts on Amazon, unknowingly supporting the surveillance, separation, and deportation of immigrant families.

And how do we let God back in? How do we help reveal the Divine goodness that fills this world? By treating our fellow humans with dignity. By listening for their stories with empathy. By refusing to participate in, and working to dismantle, inhumane systems.

When we welcome in those who are seeking safety and survival among us, we also welcome in the Divine. May your Chanukah be filled with welcome, and wherever you are, may it feel like home.


Rabbi Leora Abelson is a 2017 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, serves as a congregational rabbi, and is training to be a healthcare chaplain. Leora is passionate about queer embodied theology and making the ancient wisdom of the Jewish tradition accessible to social movements and anyone building a just and peaceful world.

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