Judah’s Story, Our Stories, and the Stories of Refugees
They grabbed me and led me to a van. I told them: ‘I’m an old man. I’m not a threat.’ But they didn’t listen. On our way to the prison, they kept stopping on the street and collecting more people. They blindfolded me when we arrived and they beat me very badly. Then they put me with seventy other people in a room smaller than this one. It was very cold because it was December and I was barefoot because I’d lost my slippers. There was nothing but a hole in the ground for a toilet. We all had to face the wall. Anyone who looked toward the door would be shot. We stayed there for ten days. I barely slept or ate. There was no room to even sit down. Occasionally a guard would throw bread through the window for people to grab. I thought I’d eventually be executed. But on the eleventh day, they called my name and released me out into the cold to find my way home.
—Syrian refugee now living in Amman, Jordan, Humans of New York (blog by Brandon Stanton), December 11, 2015
Parashat Vayiggash opens with Judah’s impassioned plea to Joseph, begging him to release Benjamin from captivity in order to spare their father Jacob from further anguish at losing, again, a son of his favored wife Rachel. Deeply moved by Judah’s words, Joseph can keep his identity a secret no longer, and the brothers are finally reunited. From his high station in Egypt, Joseph has toyed cruelly with his brothers—perhaps as their comeuppance for having sold him all those years ago. What is it now that finally stirs his mercy powerfully enough that he changes course? Judah’s detailed personal narrative—describing his family’s multiple misfortunes and their emotional toll—is the key that unlocks Joseph’s stubborn heart.
The times we live in behoove us to listen to others’ personal narratives—stories of compounded losses, of broken and displaced families, of risking everything because of an intolerable and life-threatening status quo. Judah and his brothers are not technically refugees (they fled famine, not persecution), yet they are in a similar position of complete vulnerability, begging for mercy from foreign powers-that-be. Our parashah shows how the stories of people’s lives have the potential to stir compassion in their listeners far more than geopolitical analyses. Indeed, it was the image of one three-year-old boy, zikhrono livrakhah, that finally awakened the world a few months ago to the Syrian refugee crisis that had been unfolding for years. Considering complex issues in human terms can motivate people to think and act differently—just as Judah’s narrative catalyzes the change in Joseph’s attitude towards the foreigners before him. Personal stories reveal the deeper truth of a situation, activating the listener’s empathy as he or she reflects on another’s plight in terms of his or her own humanity.
As Syrian refugees reach the doorsteps of countries across the globe, including our own, we must listen to their stories in light of our own Jewish national story—from the Bible to the Second World War, when the United States sent over 900 Jewish refugees on the S. S. St. Louis back to Europe. Polling from the early 1940s shows that a majority of Americans did not want Jewish refugees entering into their midst. As HIAS’s recent rabbinic letter to Congress puts it: “In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.” Let us listen to the stories of the refugees, and allow the pathos of those desperate personal narratives to stir us to action—as Joseph was stirred to action by one powerful personal story so long ago.
To read one Syrian refugee’s story in extended detail, I recommend the recent New Yorker article, “Ten Borders: One Refugee’s Epic Escape from Syria,” by Nicholas Schmidle.