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This week marks the beginning of Passover (called Pesach in Hebrew), the holiday celebrating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.
In some ways, the story of Passover is the quintessential refugee story: A persecuted people flees oppression, undergoes a long, transformative journey, and arrives in a new land. Of course there are some unique twists: G-d directly intervenes to save the Israelites and ultimately transform them into the Jewish people, and--for a change--the persecutors get their comeuppance (there’s quite a bit of smiting in the story).
The Baal Shem Tov’s stories are the Besht ever.
Like most Jewish holidays, over the years, many traditions and stories have been incorporated into our celebration. One of my favorite stories involves the tradition of welcoming the prophet Elijah—who heralds the coming of the Messiah—into our homes by opening our door near the conclusion of the Passover meal (called a Seder). Here is my favorite Elijah story. It originates with the Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht, a Jewish spiritual leader from the eighteenth century, and comes to me via the late writer Leonard Fein (who apparently heard it from his mother, an eighth-generation descendant of the Besht himself):
It happened that a Hasid (a disciple of the Besht) came one day to the master and said: “I don’t understand. Every year, we have a wonderful Seder, we do everything we have been instructed to do, and every year, we open the door for Elijah — and he never arrives. How can this be? I feel we are spurned.”
The Besht considered his disciple’s complaint, and then told him to load a wagon with food, wine, matzos, and also clothes and gifts for the children, and travel to a certain hut in a nearby village and spend the first two days of Pesach with the destitute family that lived there; it was there that he would certainly see Elijah.
The Hasid followed the Besht’s instructions punctiliously, and the next morning he arrived at the dilapidated hut in the nearby village. He was greeted warmly, his gifts were accepted with tears of gratitude, and that night, the entire family — mother, father, five children, along with their surprise guest, celebrated Pesach together.
Yet when the door was opened for Elijah — no Elijah.
Bitterly disappointed, the Hasid returned to the Besht and told him what had happened — and, more important, what had not happened. The Besht explained that Elijah must have been delayed, but that at Pesach time next year, the Hasid would surely encounter him. So he must at the time of the holiday return to the hut, once again with a wagon filled with food and gifts — but this time, before knocking on the door, he must first eavesdrop on the goings-on within the hut.
The next year at Pesach, the Hasid did as told, putting his ear to the door before knocking. He heard the mother’s lament: “We have no food for the holiday. Nothing. How can we celebrate?” And he heard the father’s reply: “Not to worry! Don’t you remember that last year, Elijah came with all that we needed, and gifts for the children as well? Have faith; he will surely come on time once more.”
So ends the story, save for its moral: Rabbi Hillel taught, “Where there is no man, be thou a man.” The Besht, through this story, taught, “Where there is no Elijah, be thou Elijah.” Through acts of loving kindness, each of us has the power to bring us all closer to redemption.
For those who have devoted themselves to helping refugees (or helping anyone else, for that matter), I think this story has particular resonance. While we continue to hope that the world situation will improve, and that fewer people will be forced from their homes by war and persecution, we must also continue our efforts to help those in need. As we read in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." In other words, Keep on Truckin' and have a Happy Pesach!
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
The Greek philosopher Heraclatus tells us that you can never step into the same river twice. We often find ourselves returning to places we visited long ago, though of course those places have changed and so have we. At least that's how it is for me with Syria.
A dashing young traveler visits the Old City of Damascus.
I visited Syria with two friends way back in April 1990, when I was a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We left Israel during our Passover break, making the reverse commute, as it were, to Egypt, where we got new passports without Israel stamps (people with Israel stamps were not admitted to Syria--and they could be arrested). We then crossed Sinai and the Red Sea, spent some time in Jordan (where we further rid ourselves of evidence that we'd been living in Israel), and finally took a bus to Syria.
In those days, Syria was ruled by Hafez Asad, father of the current dictator. His Droopy-Dog image adorned buildings, money, walls, and calendars. This was eight years after Asad put down an uprising in Hama, killing thousands in the process. Syria in 1990 was repressive, but it was safe for tourists and very welcoming. I don't remember what I expected before I went, but as a young Jewish student visiting Israel's number one enemy and finding human beings--friendly ones at that--I found myself changed forever. I'm reminded of a line from Christmas in the Trenches, a song about World War I: "The walls they kept between us to exact the work of war / Have been crumbled and are gone for ever more."
Aside from the friendly reception, Syria was a wonderful place to visit: the Old City of Damascus, the 1300-year-old Umayyid Mosque, the Citadel and covered souk in Allepo, the Crack de Chevalier (a medieval castle), the Roman ruins of Palmyra. Over the years, I had many occasions to think about my trip to Syria, and how it affected me. However, despite the repressive nature of the regime, I never had any Syrian clients.
That changed after the Revolution began in 2011. I started receiving cases from Syria, and I started thinking about the country in a new way.
Since then, some of my most tragic cases have come from Syria. Many of my clients have lost family members--siblings, parents or children. Others were detained and tortured during the early days of the Revolution (now, it seems, the regime no longer releases detained opponents--it kills them). Many have had their homes destroyed, their property looted, and their businesses seized. All have had their lives profoundly disrupted.
On one level, it is difficult to square the destruction and the terrible stories from Syria with my memories of the place. I was there during peace time, and I’ve come to view my time in the Middle East in 1990—and especially my trip to Syria—as a dividing line in my life. For me, it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Maybe because my trip to Syria came at a significant time in my life, the difficulties of my Syrian clients has affected me more deeply. Or maybe it is because I became a father--with all the new emotions that entails--not long before the Revolution began. Or maybe it's simply that the stories from Syria are so heartbreaking. I suppose the "why" doesn't much matter. For anyone who deals with Syrians--even one so far removed as me--it is impossible not to be moved by the human tragedy that we are witnessing. And for those of us who have visited Syria, the loss is somehow more vivid.
It's Passover again, and once again my family and I are celebrating the holiday of freedom. This year, I am remembering my trip to Syria a quarter century ago. I am also thinking of my clients, and the millions of others, who have been harmed by the current war. It seems impossible that the war will ever end, but one day it will. Until then, I hope we will continue to protect refugees from Syria. As we are reminded each Passover:
When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Chag Sameach. Happy Passover.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Updated 04-06-2015 at 12:13 PM by JDzubow