The heroes of the Bible knew what it was like to be refugees
The Midrash tells us of a man named Yusta who served as a local tailor in his town of Tzipori. As a result of a series of events that follow a chance meeting with the Emperor, Yusta was appointed governor over his native city. When he returned to Tzipori, the townspeople began to argue: “Was the new governor actually their old tailor?” Some said it was Yusta, while others maintained that it must surely be another person.
One wise man suggested a simple test: “While parading through the old marketplace, if the governor turns his head to gaze at the spot where he once worked, we will know that he is Yusta. If he passes by without looking, we will know that he is not.” When the people observed him turn and look longingly at his old workplace, everyone knew that the governor was indeed Yusta the tailor.
A simple question arises: having lived with Yusta for many years, why were the townspeople suddenly unable to recognise the face of their old landsman? And if they were unsure of his identity, why didn’t they simply ask him who he was?
Yet, perhaps the debate among the townspeople about their new governor was not whether he was in fact Yusta. Everyone recognised him as such. The real question was; “We know the governor is Yusta — but does the governor know that he’s Yusta?” Has this man, who has now risen to prominence forgotten his humble beginnings? Had the modest Yusta retained his integrity upon rising to power, or had our good old Yusta been replaced by a pompous, egocentric politician?
For the wise man, Yusta’s glance to his old place of work showed he had not forgotten his meek and unpretentious start in as a tailor.
This is a question we must all ask of ourselves. We’re all accomplished in our individual way. But do we recall our humble beginnings? Do we remember how our great-grandparents and grandparents were often mere tailors and cobblers, shoemakers and farmers, who came to these shores sometimes with little or nothing but the shirts on our backs, escaping the persecutions left behind.
The acid test of how well we remember is reflected in whether we dare to look back — behind us, to others who may be undergoing a similar plight today. We see images of people struggling to escape their war-torn countries trying to reach safe shores. Do we look back and identify and empathise with their troubles or have we become so self-important that we are indifferent to them?
Every story in the Bible is essentially one of refugees. Ishmael was sent from his father Abraham’s home and found himself wallowing in a barren desert. He was a refugee who was given hope and a new lease on life. Jacob was a refugee when he had to run for fear of his life from his home, alone and destitute in a dark world. Ultimately he prevailed rising to prominence once more.
Joseph was a refugee, struggling in an alien environment after being sold by his brothers. He was eventually embraced by his host country. When Moses had to flee for his life to Midian, he was a refugee, given safe haven by a Midianite priest. When my mother had to run from the Nazi invasion of Holland, away from her parents at a tender young age, she was a refugee, and a Dutch priest took her in and provided for her and protected her, literally saving her life.
Many, if not most of us, are where we are on account of our ancestry, or indeed immediate family, who at one point or another found themselves running for their lives and someone somewhere reached out and gave them refuge. Every one of us is Yusta. But what are we like when we pass the old tailor shop? What sort of emotions are evoked when we see others fac- ing a similar plight? Do we look on with the same indifference for which we still blame the world when it turned its back on countless of our own brothers and sisters? Or do we remember with some degree of humility our humble beginnings and appreciate that something must be done.
Perhaps some feel the attitude to those coming from Muslim countries is distinctly different. Prejudice is, after all, one of the principal constituents of the human personality. And all those years ago, make no mistake about it, there were those who thought and felt the same about us as Jews. We called it antisemitism. And you then have to wonder in what way we might be any different.
Yusta passed the test. Even as governor, he never forgot where he came from. Looking back upon that place where he once sat and sewed, he remembered his humble origins. We too must ponder our own humble beginnings and be sufficiently moved to do something about the plight of others as well.
When Moses had to flee for his life, he was given safe haven ’
Yitzchak Schochet is rabbi of Mill Hill Synagogue and blogs at RabbiSchochet.com
A child waiting last November to be taken from Greece to France in an EU relocation programme for refugees