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October 23, 2013 By:
As Jews, We Know What It’s Like to Be Immigrants
Long before we are given the commandment in Exodus to “not oppress the stranger,” the story of Abraham teaches us what it feels like to be a stranger. Chayyei Sarah opens with the death of Sarah, and Abraham’s negotiations with the local Hittites to procure a burial space for her.
Abraham explains: “I am a resident alien among you.” He both belongs to the new land, and is a stranger there. He left the land of his father to follow God to an unknown land, and the new land is still not completely his. “Resident alien,” or “resident stranger,” implies a liminal status — not quite an alien, not quite a citizen, in fact, something of both.
This in-between status surfaces again with his need to find a wife for Isaac. He speaks to his servant, explaining that he must not get Isaac a wife from the local Canaanite population. That would be too much assimilation to the new land. He suggests looking for a wife from the land of his own birth, the very land that Abraham had to leave when he followed God’s call.
The connection to that land still remains, and with the search for Isaac’s wife, Abraham actively renews it. Abraham may be in a new physical place, but he still holds the people of his old land in high enough regard to look for a wife for Isaac among them. This is a way of staying connected to his heritage.
However, when the servant suggests that if the girl does not want to leave her home then Isaac could go to her, Abraham quickly responds in the negative: “On no account must you take my son back there!” God has assigned the new land to Abraham’s offspring. Isaac, Abraham’s son and progenitor of his future generations, cannot leave the land and risk betraying that promise. This further reflects the tension of the “resident stranger.” Abraham at once longs to stay connected to his family and ancestors, while not wanting to give up the commitment he has made to this new, God-shown land.
Rebecca and her family receive the servant with generous hospitality. The people of the old land are good, even if this was not the right place for Abraham to begin his own
leadership of a people. Rebecca herself is eager to take the journey to the new land. The language that describes her agreement to get up and go echoes that of Abraham’s response to God in Lech Lecha. Isaac was born in the new land, so by definition he cannot know as much about the old, but Rebecca, like Abraham, connects the two.
We all come from immigrant families at some point, and as Jews, we know well what it means to be connectors between an old and new land. Many of us have connections to three lands: the land of our family origin, America and Israel. This leads to a multilayered identity, adding a richness to who we are, which is witnessed in language, customs and the stories we tell.
Abraham’s status as a connector between the old and the new place brought forth a new nation. In fact, Abraham reminds us that the tension between old and new can lead to a greater vision.
When we stand between the two, we can choose the best of the old to carry forth into the new. We can learn from the wisdom of our ancestors while heeding the call of God, urging us to follow our new visions. As connectors, we have the opportunity to raise up the best of all our worlds.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.