The title is a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Below is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/4/17.
Not really a sermon this morning, but three brief vignettes that might help us, as Jews, think about about some of what is going on in Washington these days, particularly the immigration ban. Sometimes it can be helpful to look back, because it is easy when you get comfortable – as we are today – to very quickly forget where you’ve actually come from.
And we’ll begin by looking way, way back, all the way back to this morning’s Torah portion, the events of which most scholars would date about 3500 years ago. I want to introduce you to a young Israelite slave who was living in Egypt at that time. His name was Nahshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah. He was about 18 or 19 years old, and had lived his entire life in slavery, working in the hot Egyptian son, doing the backbreaking work of building the pyramids. But there was something special about Nahshon. Unlike his parents’ generation, whose spirits had been crushed by the cruel bondage of Egypt, Nahshon had a fire burning inside of him. He had always believed that one day there might be a way to escape the slavery, to leave Egypt behind, and to live life as a free man. But he never really knew how that night happen.
And then one day a man named Moses appeared. He would come to the Israelite villages, and he talked about ideas that seemed strange, even crazy. He said that the old God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah had returned. That that God had heard the cry of the Israelites in their slavery, and had set in motion a series of events that would somehow enable them to be free. Many of the people didn’t believe Moses, but Nahshon did. He began to quietly talk about a moment that would soon come, a door that would suddenly open, a window in time, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and set out on a journey to freedom. Nahshon watched, and waited, and bided his time.
Then one night it actually happened. It was the middle of the night, and a terrible cry could be heard throughout the land of Egypt. A deathly power was making its way through the Egyptian homes, slaying all of the first born. Moses and his messengers went through the Israelite settlements, urging people to pack a few belongings in haste, to take with them only what they absolutely needed the most. And so the people quickly assembled – men, women, children. Nahshon fell in with his tribe, with a small sack over his shoulder. In his heart he felt a sense of hope he had never before felt in his life. He turned his face to the east where the sun was rising, and he began to walk forward. As the first rays of the sun fell on his face, his eyes burned brightly.
Lets now take our minds out of the Egyptian desert, and move forward in time about 1000 years. In the year 586 BCE a Jew named Azariah lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He was a simple man, living a simple life. He made his living by harvesting grapes and olives in the groves and vineyards around his small home, and making wine and olive oil that he sold to travelers who were on their way to see the great city. But Azariah lived in troubled times. Jerusalem has been besieged by the Babylonian army, the greatest power in the ancient world, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians have built great war towers around the city’s walls, and they waited patiently as hunger and thirst began to set in.
In the course of a few weeks during that terrible summer Azariah watched the Babylonians bring Jerusalem to its knees. The siege lasted for three months, but the end was quick. The Babylonians finally breached the outer walls, and then steadily made their way towards the Temple mount, burning and destroying everything in their path. When they reached the Temple they set it on fire, and later tore it down, stone by stone, to its foundation. A few days later Babylonian soldiers appeared and informed the local population they would be exiled and sent to a far away land. They had one day to prepare. Azariah didn’t know it, or think about it this way, but very much like his distant ancestor Nahshon he packed a small sack with his few belongings. The next morning he joined a long line of his fellow Jews, 4,600 of them, and guarded by Babylonian soldiers, they began a journey that would take many months, and would end with them living in exile on the banks of the K’var River in Babylonia. For the first time in Jewish history there was a diaspora community, but they never forgot Jerusalem their sacred city, or Israel their holy land.
Of course there have been countless other Jewish journeys in the course of time, some forced, others taken freely. As the Muslim civilization grew to power in the 7th century Jews followed trade routes and established small communities on the Iberian peninsula. In the the late 800s Jews gradually made their way into Europe, settling in small villages along the Rhine River, and in Italy and France. There were forced expulsions – from England in 1290, and of course from Spain in 1492. Each time, like Nahshon and Azariah before them, the Jews packed their few belongings and began another journey, searching for a home, searching for freedom.
I would like to share one last story with you this morning.
This story begins fairly recently in the long scope of Jewish history, on the 13th day of May, in the year 1939. On that day a young woman named Regina Adler boarded a boat called the SS St Louis in Hamburg Germany. There were 937 passengers on that boat, almost all of them Jewish. They were afraid, fleeing a country they had believed to be a safe haven, a place where until recently they thought they could live freely as both Jews and Germans. Regina was born in Austria Hungary, in 1897, but had come to Germany with her parents as a teenager.
When the ship set sail the destination was Havanah, and despite difficult conditions on board the trip went smoothly. Every passenger on the ship left Germany with proper documentation and permits that should have allowed them to enter Cuba, but when the boat arrived at the Havanah port they were told all permits had been revoked and they were forced to remain on board. In desperation the boat headed for US shores, but it was met by US Coastguard ships and told in no uncertain terms that it would not be permitted to land. On June 6 the decision was made to turn the St Louis around and head back to Europe.
About half the passengers on the boat would survive the war. England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take in some of the Jewish refugees. Most of those who ended up in Nazi controlled areas died in the camps. But Regina Adler was permitted to enter England, and she lived there for many years after the war ended.
These are our stories, Jewish stories. Of exile and forced travel, of wandering and searching for home and freedom. They are ingrained into our souls and psyches – informing who we are and how we see the world. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “we are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.” When we think about today’s events, about a world filled with refugees, about immigrants searching for a new home, about borders and who should be permitted to cross them, we should remember our own history. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were packing our own small bags, leaving our homes behind, and setting out with hope for the Promised Land.