The Immigrant Experience: The Challenges of Hardship and Success
In this weeks parsha we have our rabbis describe the sojourn of Yaakov through the eyes of an immigrant, through the experience of a stranger. This because there are elements of Yaakov’s life that hint to us that he understood the hardships of being a foreigner, and the conflicts of being a successful immigrant. Today we are going to look at how this plays out for Yaakov the migrant, and his descendants.
Let us start at the top of our parsha. In the first verse we see that Yaakov sends messengers ahead of him, to his brother Eisav in Seir, in Edom where he dwells. Eisav has amassed a small army and following of his own. As Yaakov returns home he fear that Eisav will hear of his approach and come up to get even with him.
Then our second verse reads:
“And he commanded them
saying: ‘So shall you say to my lord,
“Thus says your servant Yaakov;
with Laban I have resided,
and stayed until now.”’”
| lemor koh tomrun ladonee
| koh amar avdecha Yaakov
| im-Lavan garti
| va’echar ad-atah
As Yaakov considers his return back to Canaan and his father’s home in Hevron he realizes that he better show respect to Eisav. Sure he is groveling, but he is also doing the right thing of acknowledging Eisav as a man of authority. He gives full honor to Eisav when he refers to him as adonee – my lord, my master. Yaakov refers to himself as being an eved – a slave, a servant to Eisav. He fully throws himself at Eisav’s mercy.
Aside from appealing to Eisav with deference and respect, he also begins to offer an explanation for himself. He needs to provide Eisav a reason to show mercy to him. Before Yaakov offers his possessions as a bribe, he makes a statement about where he acquired them and where he as been since his disappearance. He says, “garti / I have resided” with Laban.
Now we know the hardships that Yaakov endured in his residency with Laban. How he worked hard for his uncle Laban for seven years to earn his right to marry Rachel, but instead he was given Leah. How he then worked another seven to eventually also earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. His pay rate was toyed around with in order to benefit his cruel employer, Laban who despised his astounding success in business. Having no hope or future there due to persecution, he eventually has to the return to the home and heritage he abandoned.
Our master Rashi comments on this verse, and also focuses his attention on the word garti (resided) as being a key word to understanding this text and the weight of the statement being made here.
The Rashi to our text reads:
“I have sojourned: Heb. גַּרְתִּי. I did not become an officer or a dignitary, but a stranger (גֵּר). It is not worthwhile for you to hate me on account of your father’s blessing, [with] which he blessed me (27:29):“You shall be a master over your brothers,” for it was not fulfilled in me (Tanchuma Buber Vayishlach 5). Another explanation: גַּרְתִּי has the numerical value of 613. That is to say: I lived with the wicked Laban, but I kept the 613 commandments, and I did not learn from his evil deeds.”
גרתי: לא נעשיתי שר וחשוב אלא גר, אינך כדאי לשנוא אותי על ברכות אביך שברכני (לעיל כז כט) הוה גביר לאחיך, שהרי לא נתקיימה בי. דבר אחר גרתי בגימטריא תרי“ג, כלומר עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותרי“ג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים:
Rashi to Genesis 23:5
As we begin to look at Rashi’s interpretation we must first understand that he is going out of his way to make a bold statement. One can say that he is almost teasing an interpretation out of this. I say this because there is little need to interpret the word gararti; it simply means to sojourn, to reside, to live with them. There is no mystery surrounding this turn of phrase.
Nonetheless Rashi decides to simmer on this point for a while, he does this by invoking homily by word association. Rashi takes the word from its context, a verb whose root is gar (גָּר), and instead insists that we look at this phrase as though it is rooted in the closely related word ger (גֵּר). He tells us to look past its meaning as a verb and consider its emphasis delivered in the tone of a noun. I’ll explain what this means.
The word ger is a charged phrase in our Jewish lexicon, so we need to put it in proper context. In the rabbinic use of the word ger, we hold this word to mean convert or stranger. But but here it is displayed in its purest form, here ger means resident alien. In a purely civil use of the word, this means to dwell (gar) among another people as non-citizen alien – a ger.
Rashi doesn’t want us to just consider that Yaakov lived in a foreign place, but he wants us even more still to identify with him as a foreigner. He wants us to empathize with, and also soberly consider the realities of being a foreigner.
Here as we have Yaakov returning to Canaan with all his possessions and servants, he has to explain how he accumulated such wealth. It is incumbent upon him to explain that for the first time he has acquired great things through honest dealings and work. Furthermore, to soften the heart of Eisav who he has previously ripped-of, he seems to be making an appeal that Eisav not seek to get even through plundering him. In fact he had already been riped-off by Laban all along.
Here Rashi makes the most interesting point. He says when Yaakov went abroad he did stay with his uncle Laban. But he wasn’t received like a prince or some sort of dignitary. He was a stranger. Though he had native relatives in the land of Charan where he resided, he was still a stranger. He was a resident and not a citizen. He was a resident alien.
Now very few times do we consider what the status differences between a citizen and a resident are. In the United States this seems very odd, because the law of the land grants most civil rights to all people on our soil. And there are very few restrictions set upon foreigners, in comparison to other countries. That is not to say we don’t have injustices towards foreigners, but inequality for migrants is most heinous in the developing world. Their plight there is often callously ignored.
This lesson brings up some memories of my youth, when I used to go abroad with my family. I lived for some time in Northern Mexico, joining my retired grandparents to help them settle into their retirement. We had always considered ourselves Mexican-Americans, even though we were all born citizens of the USA. Even if we were quite a few generations removed, the place seemed to hold some sort of ethnic identity for us. We saw it as our “old country.” But quickly I began to see in the real context of civil society that sentiment and ethnicity meant nothing.
Not only for me, but for many other people. And for the Central and South American migrants, I witness unparalleled brutality show to them by both authorities and citizens alike. Most often these travelers heading north were swindled of everything they had, and in many case even kidnapped into forced labor. In many more cases, they are just shot dead and left in mass graves that get little real attention. Being there I saw that there was little reason for migrant families to settle in Mexico, because basic civil services like public education and health care are denied to non-citizens.
And applying for residency did not gain one much rights even then. The applications for residency stating that for employment one must be sponsored by an employer, however the job must not be one that can be filled by a Mexican citizen. Immigration imposes impossible financial and legal restrictions. Neither are non-citizens able to own land. I even watched as thousands of American senior citizens who unwittingly invested and lived in retirement beach homes in Mexico got tossed to the streets by federal police.
This may seem outrageous, and it is, but this is the common experience of many immigrants. And Yaakov’s experience was no less complicated and perilous. He didn’t venture to Charan with a certain sense of entitlement, nor gain anything through their charity. Quite to the contrary. Even his kinship to Laban meant nothing really, if anything he was victimized by Laban because Yaakov had no rights in that land to protect him. He came as a foreigner and was treated as a common foreigner in the worldly sense. In the way that aliens are treated in the less enlightened world, very poorly.
So in this statement Rashi has Yaakov saying to Eisav, you have no reason to hate me. Don’t be angry with me on account of my success, because it’s not what it seems. In fact it’s not worth being angry over, because instead of living up to the blessing as master over ones brothers I went into a foreign land and dwelt as a menial servant with no rights.
So that brings up the question, so what of G-d’s promise? Did G-d not keep His word?
It’s not that G-d’s promise was not kept, but it was not fulfilled in Yaakov’s own person. It was something that was realized by his children, by his sons that would form the twelves tribes of Israel.
If you think about it, this is most often true for immigrants. Though immigrants in very permissive countries like the United States often find success, the true benefit of their gain is not usually actualized by them but their children instead.
For immigrant families this is one of the most driving concerns, about raising their children for a better future. So that their children can achieve the dreams that they could not. It should be the drive of the immigrant parent to work hard in order to secure a better future for their children. To allow their children to leap into the world with security and resources that they did not have in their own journey. To have sons and daughters that will walk boldly into society without the many layers of insecurities they had.
However, the fullness of the immigrant’s dream is not fully realized by the parents who are doing the hard work of building a foundation and sinking roots for the family. It is the children who really experience what its like for it all to come to fruition. It is actualized by children born into a native environment of success and abundance.
That is not to say that success does not come with some difficulties for the immigrant and their families as well. When there is a lot of acceptance. And this is one of those topics that we can explored by utilizing the alternative interpretation of Rashi.
Rashi makes a second point, saying that one can also interpret this text kabbalistically. He asks us to look at the mystical meaning, in order to further illuminate the text. He employs the use of gematria and tells us the word garti (resided) has the numeric value of 613 – the number of Torah commandments we recognize in the scriptures. He uses the mystical this time to make us reconsider this text.
Our master Rashi teaches us that we should understand this to hint at the idea that when Yaakov went and dwelt as a foreigner he still kept all of his tradition and faith. He didn’t forget his Torah values and goals. Nor did he learn from their evil ways.
And this is one of the things that most often concerns immigrants of any origin or experience when they come to free countries in the West. That they might lose part of their identity. And that their children will be too free to make decisions different from theirs, and embrace ways that are contrary to their own. That future children will not appreciate or recognize the importance of their culture and heritage. They they might even reject one’s inherited culture all together in pursuit of the vices of the common culture.
And this is most often the concern for religious Jews, but it is even more so for people who are recent immigrants. We often see this displayed in the communal politics of the Jewish immigrants who have recently come from places such as Iran and Morocco for instance. Overwhelmed by cultural and technological changes the parents often become culturally nostalgic and more ethnic acting than in “the old world.” And its not their “exoticness” that really makes us curious. We can’t help but curiously take notice as their integration plays out, because the experience of learning to coexist without assimilation is something that is more challenging than ever. Their experience echoes our own immigrant heritage, so we voyeuristically look on deeply wanting to know if this immigrant dream is still attainable in this day and age.
Rashi points us to Yaakov and says here is a person who dealt with seriously hardship. He was a true foreigner, an immigrant, a resident-alien. He had the worst type of migration experience, but he made a success out of it. And this type of success is not just mere survival and material accomplishment. The true measure of a successful migration is when one is able to gain prosperity without sacrificing their sense of identity. Yaakov stands out as an example that even in the most foreign and harsh conditions, we can still hold on to who we are at our core.
Something to Consider: Often times people use immigrants for work on the job and in our homes. Often times their great need leads to them accepting illegal work, for unfair conditions and pay. Out of fear they can not object or tell the authorities of their suffering. How do you think one should react when they witnesses predatory employment of foreign workers?
Also, there are immigrants all over the world that unjustly mistreated. This year I would like us to all to try to explore the plight of not only Jewish immigrants, but also of underrepresented people in the world. Ones that most people don’t often consider. Migrants such as the Romani (gypsies), and exiles such as the Tibetans.
- Parshat Vayishlach (2011)
- Parshat Vayeshev (2011)
- Parshat Vayeitzei (2013)
- Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash
- The Blessings for Chanukah: The Festival of Lights