Leaving One’s Homeland
My family did not leave Germany till December 1938, some five weeks after the Nazis had destroyed Hanover’s magnificent synagogue on Kristallnacht. My father, the last rabbi of this once flourishing community, endured ten harrowing days in Buchenwald. Once we had to get out, my father was determined to leave Europe as well. We came to the States in March 1940, after a stop in England, which my father used to study English. He had just turned 41.
I have often wondered why it took us so long to leave. In 1933 my father had visited Palestine to learn first hand what kind of preparation (hakhshara) would best facilitate the aliyah of young people from Hanover and in 1937 he came here to visit two sisters who had settled in America long before the Nazis came to power. I confess that I never asked him directly. He did on occasion make reference to a letter he had received from Rabbi Leo Baeck, the religious leader of German Jewry, urging him to tend his flock till the end. My father, a man of deep faith, never struck me as politically astute or engaged. He had not been a Zionist in his younger years, and from his comments to me about antisemitism in Germany prior to 1933, I suspect that he underestimated its pervasiveness.
In short, I surmise that a visceral fear of leaving as well as an acquired sense of duty delayed the terrifying decision to abandon his homeland in mid-life. The heart grieves over what is left behind, and the unknown that lies ahead teems with monsters. I will never be able to imagine my parents’ state of mind as they left, for I live in a world where exile is a commonplace and the Holocaust has imbued every Jew with a measure of existential angst. What I do recall is the emotional intensity of the day in 1946 when my parents finally became U.S. citizens, a ceremony they took me out of school to witness.
For me the Torah is an epic about exile, the quintessential fate of Jew and non-Jew alike in the twentieth century. The motif is struck at the outset by the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their Edenic domicile. Cain is condemned to be “a restless wanderer on earth (Genesis 4:12),” while No·ah must start civilization afresh. Even the inhabitants of Shinar, united by a common language, are unable to avert the fate of dislocation with their tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Instability is a mark of the human condition.
Thus the divine call to Abraham to become a source of blessing for “all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3)” carries with it the rupture of exile. At the age of 75, he is impelled to leave his land and birthplace and father’s dwelling to relocate in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings. In Canaan he is force to fight to rescue his nephew (Genesis 14) and in Egypt to compromise his wife in order to survive (Genesis 12:10-20). Many a Holocaust survivor is afflicted with lifelong feelings of guilt over deeds done to escape extermination. Exile is a harsh test of virtue and character, and we who have been spared should not indulge in self-righteousness.
The persistence of the theme of exile is not to be denied. When Abraham, at the pinnacle of his power, is about to settle down and take possession of his new land, God informs him of an unsettling scenario. You will die here in peace at a ripe old age. But not your children. Before they can create a society that rests firmly on what is just and right (Genesis 18:19), they must also go through the worst of an exile experience. “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth (Genesis 15:15).”
Only a nation tempered in the furnace or forced labor would ever come up with a weekly day of rest that is to include “your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements (Exodus 20:10).” The experience of slavery endowed the legal system of Abraham’s progeny with unique compassion for the outsider, the victim of homelessness.
And yet exile did not end for the people of Israel with the Exodus. It would continue for another forty years till life in the wilderness had hardened a generation of self-reliant warriors. At the death of Moses, the tribes stand poised to conquer the promised land, which is to say that the entire narrative framework of the Torah is set outside the borders of ancient Israel.
Uncannily, the prominence accorded to the subject of exile by the Torah anticipates the later course of Jewish history. Patterns of Jewish experience repeat themselves, offering the consolation of fates that are identical. Thus Isaac Abravanel, the leader of Spanish Jewry in its darkest hour, speaks of “the expulsion of the Jerusalem situated in Spain,” implying that the learning and piety of Spanish Jewry made them the equal of the city in which the Temple once stood. Moreover, he asserts that the expulsion from Spain fell on Tisha B’av to mysteriously coincide with the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Scripture and history endlessly overlap and interlock in a sacred drama of deep meaning and universal import.
Yet more than half of Spanish Jewry chose to convert rather than leave. Fear overcame faith. A thousand years on Spanish soil had eroded their sense of otherness and weakened their resolve to persist at all cost. Had the Nazis offered Jews a choice many, alas, would have opted to stay.
In 1948 when I became bar-mitzva, my Torah portion turned out to be Lekh L’kha . What an exquisite commentary on my experience of a fractured world! We find in the Torah what we bring to it. Today I regard the Torah as a relentless protest against the plight of the oppressed. Social justice is measured not merely by how we treat our neighbor but also the stranger in our midst. To eliminate the distinction between insider and outsider, to bestow the same rights and duties on both and to see all humanity as sharing the same patrimony – that is the mission of Abraham’s children.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,