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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

A Passover Parable (Especially for Refugee Advocates)

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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.

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