Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Lech L’cha, in which our ancestors Avram and Sarai are called to be God to begin their journey, to where they do not know. The Ramban, a slightly lesser known contemporary to Rambam who was also a wise rabbi, Torah commentator, and physician, interpreted the verse, “To the land that I will show you,” as meaning that Avram and Sarai “wandered aimlessly from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom, til [they] reached Canaan, when God told [Avram] “To your seed I shall give this land… Before that, he did not yet know that that land was the subject of the command.”
To illustrate this aimlessness to the second graders at Gesher this week, we went wandering around the grounds on Wednesday afternoon. I asked the line leader of the week to pick a place, and we walked out to the soccer fields. Then I asked another student to pick a place, and we walk to a muddy pond where the students sometimes do experiments for their natural science classes. I asked another student to pick a place, and he led us on a particularly roundabout journey to the labyrinth in the wooded area behind the school that another rabbi at the school had built with the middle schoolers. I asked him if it was so roundabout because he hadn’t decided on a destination before he asked to be the next leader, but he said the labyrinth was his goal the whole time but he forgot the way. Luckily one of his classmates is the daughter of the rabbi who built it so she was able to redirect him when he needed help. At one point in the woods, we lost the path, and although they’re not so thick and we weren’t so deep, we did get a bit turned around and couldn’t find a way out that wouldn’t mean stomping over pricker bushes. The sky got dark and the wind picked up, and for a moment some of the students were frightened. We found a path without prickers, although it still wasn’t the way we had come into the woods, and hurried back inside before the rain started.
I asked the 2nd graders who else they could think of that might feel lost and scared, aimless and unsure of where to find shelter, the way that Abraham did and they way that they did ever so briefly on our wander-about. Immediately, several hands shot into the air, and they named homeless people, poor people who are at risk to have their homes taken away, and refugees. They told me some stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents who had escaped from the Holocaust, though they didn’t know many details. Although modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg remind us that Avram is explicitly not a refugee, the connection the students made was clear to me. Unlike Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, Cain sent away from his family, the people of Babel dispersed, the later Israelites exiled to Babylon, Avram is not threatened or forced out of his home in Ur. He is called upon to begin a sacred journey to a holy Promised Land. But like Avram, many refugees must travel without a sure destination, wandering from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom until they reach a place that is revealed to them as a holy Promised Land, a place where they can be safe to worship who they like and be who they are, a place to call home.
As Jews who know what it is to feel the fear of persecution, to grow up being told to always have a current passport and have some cash hidden, “just in case,” we have a responsibility to help those looking for a safe place, especially those of us who are more secure than others due to class, race, citizen status, gender, sexuality, or whatever other axis of oppression and privilege we claim. It may not be safe to invite strangers into our homes, but there may be a time when someone you know is in need of a warm bed, a hot shower, and some milk money, or some legal help defending their civil liberties. To turn them away would be to dishonor our ancestors, who after being weary travelers themselves, take in weary travelers in the plains of Mamre. And when a situation is such that we cannot directly intercede, there are organizations that can. Donate to a homeless shelter so that they can continue to provide safety for these modern-day sojourners. Volunteer at a soup kitchen so that those pressed between feeding their children and paying their rent don’t have to make the painful decision this month. Learn and spread information about HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, so that those escaping war, famine, and genocide know that there is a safe destination for them and they need not wander aimlessly.
May we all find our destinations, a place we are called to, a safe space, and when we get there, may we welcome in others with open arms. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.