For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt: Preparing for a Century of Displacement
Passover is a holiday deeply concerned with inclusion - at one point during each seder night, we open our doors and leave them open wide, and call out "let all who are hungry come and eat." One year, teaching Hebrew School to 10 year olds, I asked them what would happen if they called out and a stranger came in and sat down. My students, largely from affluent and middle families in a leafy suburb where most strangers are likely to be much like them, were to a one deeply uncomfortable with the notion. They expressed fear at the thought of the stranger coming to their table, even surrounded by family members. These are children who have been raised with the notion that strangers are risky, that hospitality is something you offer mostly to people like yourself. We talked a long time in that class about why that was - about why it is that we mostly opened doors to people like ourselves, and why we fear the stranger, when we are specifically ordered not to.
At Passover, we recount the story of Jews living as "strangers" in the land of Egypt - as oppressed and unwelcome people. And we tell the story not just of the departure, but of becoming refugees. Most Haggadot (the ritual volume that tells the story) do not use the word "refugee" and yet that's precisely what someone who must abandon their homes and all they have known to escape difficulties is. We were refugees that time - and the Jews were refugees again and again and again through history - my husband's family can track back generations of refugees. They ran from Spain from the Inquisition to Brazil and Russia, they ran from Russia into Poland and Wales, they ran from Germany to England, to Portugal, to Denmark, and finally to the US. Each of those stories, old and new gets told back and is a reminder that for thousands of years your ancestors stood outside waiting for someone to call "let those who are hungry come and eat."
One of the central pieces of the Passover story, then, which is so important we tell it twice, on two separate nights, is this - you were a refugee, and you should know what it is like. And you must remember those who are still strangers, who are still seeking refuge. You must open your doors to them - for real. If we do not, we face the possibility of condemning a world of refugees to death.
This remembering, acknowledging, welcoming becomes more urgent in this century, as we now face a world with more refugees than ever in human history. In 2001, for the first time in human memory we had more refugees of natural disasters than war - a dubious milestone. By 2050, under high emissions scenarios (and these are the ones we must presume most likely, given that we're doing pretty much nothing to reduce emissions) the IPCC predicts up to 150 MILLION climate refugees. There will be more people on the move than ever before in this century.
Some of them may be you and your neighbors - as Joseph Romm points out no nation in the world has so much wealth along its coastlines, and the combination of that and rising temperatures in the hottest and dryest parts of the US mean that we are likely to see massive shifts in patterns of settlement within the US. But the vast majority of climate refugees will be women and children from the poor world. They will flood over borders and into camps, they will attempt to migrate into countries that seem safer. And we will struggle with the question of how to feed and care for them. We will struggle with our fear of refugees and immigrants, and our sense that there are too many of them and not enough of us. We will probably use those fears to justify our actions.
We will worry about floods of "them" disrupting our society, about the possibility of violence from outsiders. We will probably ignore the fact that statistically speaking, refugees are far more vulnerable to violence than they are likely to be perpetrators of it. We will ignore our role in making the lands people inhabited uninhabitable and then complain that we don't have space for them. I do not claim that these issues are easy to resolve - but I do think it is important to realize the degree to which our fear of the stranger in our lands shapes our thinking, helps naturalize our sense that we cannot help, that we cannot really invite them in to eat.
It is an old story - all our fears about decline and change center on the fear of the other, on the terror of the stranger. Read a novel about any disaster and there's always them. And in the novels there is always that critical moment when our heroes have the moral right to turn away the stranger because they *know* with an absolute certainty that they cannot share, that there will never be enough.
We know that this gets enacted in our real policies and actions - our sense of anticipatory scarcity drives us to look and say there is not enough. We know that this happened after Hurricane Katrina, when stories of murder and mayhem by victims emerged, demonizing the refugees again, causing people to take up arms rather than go out and help. They were false stories, of course. But the fear was real.
During the great depression, thousands of young men and women took the rails because they were hungry and had no jobs. While they did occasionally commit acts of violence and fairly often stole small amounts of food, generally speaking, these young people were much more likely to be abused than to do serious harm. Crime rates actually declined during the Depression. They were thrown out of towns with no food into the cold, because the law said no one who didn't live there could have the sun go down on them. They were raped and beaten up by other refugees and by locals. They were thrown in jail and set on chain gangs for the offense of being homeless. Writing about it later, many of them told stories of going to soup lines and being cast out hungry - because the town said that there was nothing for anyone but their own. A young man tells a story in David Shannon's _The Great Depression_ of travelling all winter through the midwest without a coat of any kind, and visiting, in each town, relief services and asking if anyone could give him a coat. He never got one.
Now it is possible that none of these places had a coat to give. It is possible that adding one more bone and two more potatoes to the soup pot would mean someone's child died of hunger. But I think more likely, what happens is that when things get hard for us, we often panic - we look at what we have and we see all the terrible things that could happen - and so, we hold hard onto what we have, regardless of the consequences to others. Unlike the novels, we'll probably never know for sure that we'll always have enough - there isn't any way to be sure, sometimes, whether there will be more tomorrow or not. So how do we know whether to share or not, whether to greet the stranger with a gun or a plate? How do we know, if things change and the world seems uncertain, how to respond to one another?
Well, the world was once much poorer than we are, and across the world, a surprisingly universal awareness of how important generosity and hospitality were emerged. We in America are richer than the kings of old in many ways, and instead of making us less fearful, more generous, our wealth has made us more afraid of scarcity. My faith, and every single other religion, culture and ethical system I've ever heard of, though, tells the story of the stranger in disguise. The stranger who appears in the form of someone desperately poor and in need, and who turns out to be a god, or an angel, a king or a hero in disguise. Those who turn the stranger away are punished. Those who welcome them in are rewarded.
In Judaism, it is Elijah who walks the world in the form of a stranger. And at this season of the year, at Pesach, just as the first new foods are coming, but before we are overwhelmed with plenty, we are to open our doors and call out that all who are hungry should come and eat. Because the stranger might be Elijah - because hospitality to the stranger is an obligation. Because we were strangers before in the Land of Egypt. At this point and this moment, we are obligated to share - before we know the final accounting of the harvest, before plenty is certain, we should still share - because the stranger may welcome us someday. Because we too may be the stranger.
I'm not arguing against prudence and care, or that we will always have enough to give away. But we are rich now, and yet our obligation to welcome the stranger, to share the best we have emerged before we were rich, when we were poor. We should recognize that sharing is not a natural outcome of wealth - which seems to make us greedier, but one of the best strategies for dealing with poverty. It is strategy for survival, for a meaningful future. When we naturalize the idea that we cannot share, when we assume that because our wealth has declined we cannot open our hands we forget that open hands are part and parcel of a decent life in poverty.
Joetta Handrich Schlabach, writing in _Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook_ (a wonderful book) writes of a story a friend of hers who was visiting Lesotho. She visited a friend 'Me Malebohang. They discussed the bad pumpkin harvest, and how 'Me Malebohang had only 8 pumpkins for the whole winter. As the friend got up to leave, 'Me Malebohang offered her guest the largest of the pumpkins. When the guest refused, saying she couldn't take one of her pumpkins, 'Me Malabohang answered, "We Basotho know that this is the way to do it. Next year I may have nothing in my field, and if I don't share with you now, who will share with me then?"
Jews have been strangers many, many times, and have incurred a special obligation to welcome others. But it is not an obligation exclusive to Jews - all of us in the developed world have participated in making the world less habitable to others. As we work to make the disasters we face smaller, to adapt to having less ourselves, we must also work to open our hands, to show greater generosity. The future, with all its difficulties, means that none of us can be certain that we will remain priveleged and comfortable. You can prepare perfectly and still lose your home, you can do everything right and have bad things befall you. There are things we cannot control. So each of us must live in the world as though we will someday be the stranger who turns to another for a hand. And each of us must be willing to offer one, if we expect to receive it.
This is much more risky than greeting the hungry with violence, or indifference. It is frightening. It is hard. What if the stranger who comes in to the door is angry, or smelly, or frightening? What if, despite our best rational precautions, harm is done? But then again, what if *we* do harm to an innocent other by allowing our fear to shape
our thinking too much? And what if the stranger at our doorstep is Elijah, come for his glass of wine, his plate of food, and to see if we have the courage of those who came before us, the courage to make a future?
Chag Sameach, good holidays to all of you who are celebrating anything in this season!