This week’s portion, Vayechi, is the last one in Genesis/B’reishit – it so happens I gave a sermon on it just 2 years ago, right before Covid began affecting all our lives. I spoke then about Jewish identity, partly inspired by Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book “The lies that bind: rethinking identity”. The link between the parsha and notions of Jewish identity came from Jacob’s blessings of his own sons and those of Joseph, forecasting tribal identities, and triggering questions from me about the extent to which Jewish identity is forged for us, and how much we can, and should, try to shape it for ourselves.
This year rethinking identity isn’t so much on mind – rethinking travel is. Just yesterday we decided to postpone a long-awaited trip to see family in the US. The link between the parsha and travel may be more of a stretch, but I’m going to try, not so much short-term travel, but migration. Indeed migration is deeply intertwined with Jewish identity – it plays a crucial role in the biblical narrative: Abraham’s journey to Canaan, Jacob’s family’s move to Egypt, the 40 years wandering in the desert, a role that continues right through history, as Jews moved by choice or by force from one country to another, for economic opportunity or sheer survival.
At the start of this week’s portion, just before the verses we read today, Jacob asks Joseph to promise not to bury him in Egypt, but to take him back to Canaan to be buried there after he dies, and later Joseph and his brothers fulfill this promise. This is the one journey in the parasha, a brief journey, but it has its roots in the abduction of Joseph, and the displacement forced on Jacob in order to see Joseph again and remain with his family in his old age. The notion of a Promised Land provides a broader context for Jacob’s insistence on being buried there, with the other forefathers and mothers, but on a more personal level his wish to be returned reflects the trial, tragedy and upheaval in his own life.
As I mentioned earlier, forced displacement is pervasive in Jewish history, so it’s an issue we should be especially sensitive to. In fact it was part of my own parents’ experience during and after World War II.
According to the UNHCR, there are more forcibly displaced people now than after World War II: over 84 million, including 35 million children. There are other staggering statistics on the UNHCR website; for example 85% are hosted in developing countries. The number applying for asylum in the UK is only about 30,000 per year, much lower than in Germany, France or Spain, yet the government is trying to make it harder to seek asylum here. Quoting UNHCR “the UK’s Nationality and Borders Bill would penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices.”
So what can we be doing about the crisis? Some members of the community have gone as far as housing refugees. Most of us probably don’t feel like we’re in a position to do that, but we might still be able to contribute to organizations that support refugees, and at the very least raise awareness, not just about the current situation, but its underlying causes – we can share our views, and try to create a more welcoming environment.
It’s hard to imagine the desperation that drives people to risk their lives making perilous journeys, like the one resulting in the recent tragedy in the Channel. I’m fortunate that I can choose to stay put right now. We’re relatively safe and comfortable where we live, and we can communicate with loved ones in far-flung places. I miss seeing them in person, but it’s a luxury that will have to wait a little longer. And when I see my siblings again, it won’t be as dramatic and momentous as Joseph’s reunion with his, but it’s something I can still look forward to.