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Desperate Immigrants: An Ancient Jewish Story


In the Book of Genesis, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Promised Land. Shortly after they arrive, they encounter famine and head to Egypt in search of food. Foreigners without family or clan to protect them, they are afraid. Abraham asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister in the hope that this will help them avoid trouble – an act of deceit that potentially offered them some protection from harm in the context of their times.

The gamble works out badly. Pharaoh’s courtiers notice Sarah’s beauty, and the king summons her to his harem. Only divine intervention lets Sarah escape without having to sleep with the king.

It’s a pitiable story. Abraham and Sarah lie and humiliate themselves to try to survive in a foreign nation they have not received permission to enter. It’s a story of strangers in a strange land, without protection, without connections and without a right to go about their business unmolested. It is an illegal immigrant’s story.

It’s also a story that Jews have known well many times over in many lands. Jews desperately did whatever necessary to seek a safe haven in different countries after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. During the great Jewish immigration waves to the U.S., in order to escape poverty and anti-Semitism, some Jews faked their documents or “married” American citizens to gain entry to the country. During the Nazi era, most European Jews couldn’t legally immigrate to other countries. Some weighed their options and chose to try to escape Hitler by making their way to British-run Palestine – but even in attempting to immigrate to their ancient homeland, they had to enter Palestine as illegal immigrants. They used many forms of disguise and deceit to get there.

Abraham and Sarah’s deception is pathetic. As uninvited immigrants, these unwanted Hebrews have no social or governmental structure to protect them – no way to seek recourse against anyone harming them or taking advantage of them financially or, as the sister/bride deception points to, sexually. Years pass, they return to Canaan, and still their marginal status as immigrants continues. They face suspicion from the native citizens and do their best to try to gain a foothold in their adopted country. When Sarah dies, despite the many years Abraham has lived and worked in Canaan, he still has not so much as even a claim to a grave site where he can bury her. He ends up having to go to the country’s citizens, hat in hand, and ask if he can purchase a small cave for her grave. He ends up overpaying for it.

Abraham and Sarah came to Canaan without permission, but they brought blessings to the people of the region. Mexican and Central American farmworkers, here legally or not, bring Americans the largely unappreciated luxury of cheap and abundant produce, and poverty drives most of them across our borders.

As a rabbi, I look to Jewish history and to the Hebrew Bible for insight into the ethical questions about immigrants, labor, and justice. In the Jewish community, we know from our experience that when people are desperate and seeking a better life, and when they are in precarious circumstances, sometimes they lie or break the law in order to get by. It’s humiliating. It’s not what people would prefer to do. We can judge them for it, or we can try to empathize and factor in their circumstances and difficult choices as we try to find better national policy.

Immigration laws are important, and our country is based on the rule of law. Jewish tradition also sees law as sacred and essential to a just society. But alongside law, Judaism also places sacred emphasis on story. The law must listen to the specifics of the stories being brought before it. From a Jewish perspective, good law is not robotic. It responds to people and it recognizes human vulnerability. It resists humiliating people who are swept along by massive forces that put them in the position of needing to take unappealing and dangerous risks to try to help themselves and their families survive. As Jews, we’ve played the part of Abraham and Sarah many times. We know this story.

Leviticus 19:33–34 reads, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall do him or her no wrong. The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him or her as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal, your God.”

America can do better than demonizing the Abrahams and Sarahs in our midst. Let us remember the heart of the stranger, for we have been strangers in many lands, in many times.

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on Oregonlive.com.


Pursuing Justice
Associate Director for Thriving Communities and Israel Affairs Specialist, Reconstructing Judaism

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