Image: A homeless woman huddles on a street corner with her belongings. Photo by fantareis, via pixabay.com.
Judah has gone into exile
In misery and harsh servitude.
When she settled among the nations,
She found no rest.
All her pursuers overtook her
In the narrow places. – Lamentations 1:3
In late summer of 586 BCE, we became a nation of refugees. This verse from the Scroll of Lamentations makes that perfectly clear, and it carries within it a connection to other verses in Torah.
“In the narrow places” is most translators’ rendering of “beyn hamitzarim” (בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים.)* That is a literal translation, but there is another possibility with slightly different voweling. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew name for Egypt.
So let’s try that:
All her pursuers overtook her in Egypt.
What was Egypt? Egypt was slavery. It was a prison. It was exile.
In other words, the narrator of the scroll is saying, “I get it. We messed up. And now we are going back to the beginning, to remember where we came from.”
What is it that we must remember, here and now in the 21st century? Where is this verse pointing us? I suggest we remember another verse that references Mitzrayim:
כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 19:34
In the 21st century, we worry about strangers.
The world is awash in refugees as never before. There are Syrian refugees, fleeing the destruction of their cities as our ancestors fled Jerusalem. There are other refugees, fleeing vengeful gangs in Mexico, fleeing murderous homophobia in Uganda.
You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Under the freeways, in the alleys of our cities, in our parks, the homeless huddle in makeshift camps. Some live in their cars, hanging on to the last vestiges of dignity. Parents hold their children close, and wonder how to feed them.
Young people look at the rising rents and wonder how long they can avoid the furtive camps. How will they ever afford to live? How will they ever have families? They stagger out of college burdened with debt, and they will spend their entire adult lives struggling to pay it. They move to new and unfamiliar cities, less expensive, far from family. That is a different kind of Egypt.
The writer of Lamentations calls to us to remember Egypt. We have been here before, he says.
We are back because we have forgotten the lesson: what it is like to be a wanderer on the earth.
This year the message is urgent: remember, we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. This year, on Tisha B’Av, we must remember what it was like to be a refugee, and then we must get over our fears.
It is time to reach out in recognition and mercy.
*Thank you to Akiba, who caught an error in my reading and let me know via the comments. Now corrected.