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Lech Lecha

"Know well that your offspring shall be strangers [gerim] in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed 400 years" Genesis 15:13

    Journeys and migrations lead the themes of this week's parashah. It begins with God's command to Abram and Sarai to leave

    their birthplace. Abram and Sarai are chosen for a unique destiny, to found the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. To be sure, they endure hardships along the way but their journey is a chosen one.

    In Genesis 15 the Torah tells of a different kind of journey for Abram and Sarai's descendants, this time it is a vision of forced exile and servitude. In a fearful nightmare God promises that the Israelites will be gerim for 400 years. This is the first appearance of the word ger, literally meaning stranger.

    Throughout Genesis the word ger implies the status of one who is a sojourner, a temporary resident of a place who has neither legal rights nor protections. The ger is entirely dependent on the local community.

    Later, the Torah commands the creation of a just society in the Land of Israel, including that the Israelites act kindly towards the ger. Just as the Israelites were oppressed outcasts in Egypt,the Israelites are forbidden from treating the stranger unjustly.

    The Torah promises 400 years of dispersion, yet for much of history Jews were the consummate refugees. Even today the experience of Jewish statelessness is within living memory. After the horrors of the 20th century, Jews no longer search for a home country.

    Finally, as the Jewish educator Avraham Infeld (the founder of Melitz in Israel) has observed, the words Jewish and refugee have been decoupled. The Torah commands us to remember our estrangement in the Land of Egypt. As we remember our disenfranchisement of the past, we are commanded to ensure justice for the strangers among us today.

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