The he­roes of the Bi­ble knew what it was like to be refugees

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI YITZCHAK SCHOCHET

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

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

A child wait­ing last Novem­ber to be taken from Greece to France in an EU re­lo­ca­tion pro­gramme for refugees

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