Displacement

To be displaced from your home is a surreal experience; It is living in a temporary dwelling, or perhaps two different ones—it is about seeing your actual home but being unable to access it. This is not to say that one is suffering–the opposite might be true. When we got stuck in between homes (having sold one pre-Corona with the expectation that the new one would be ready, when in fact more than half a year will be the delay) we were able to live with my in-laws who took care of us in the most comfortable way. And when we had to be in Efrat our amazing friends, the Slaskys, offered us their basement which has been a lifesaver. You can argue that we have not only survived but thrived; yet on a metaphysical or existential level it’s a different story.

Being displaced from your home means having to live an alternate lifestyle, it means improvising, putting out fires when need be, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for yourselves, for your children. It means rearranging your priorities, putting big plans on hold and focusing on the crisis at hand stemming from foreign stimuli and doing your utmost to keep what is dear to you and your family safe.

Sometimes the displacement is physical; other times, like in our Corona existence, it is everything but! Forced to be secluded in your home with your family for such a long period of time engenders new realities, new crises, uncharted experiences. It almost always involves new dimensions of social interactions (when was the last time we spent so much time together?), but also spiritual attrition might ensue (no shuls, no joyful experiences of holidays etc., no guests, no gatherings to learn, no joint engaging in chesed…). How does one deal with all these new realities?

I believe scholars will be researching the adverse (and perhaps unintended beneficial) effects on the individuals, families, communities for many years to come. But I would like to place this discussion in a biblical context, a parallel experience of displacement, though of a most severe nature — the voluntary displacement from Canaan by Yaakov and his family.

It is not for naught that God appears to Yaakov before his impending meeting with Yosef in Egypt:–46:2

ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ; אַל-תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה, כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם.  ד אָנֹכִי, אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי, אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף, יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ

Elohim comes to Yisrael in the darkness of night and calls out ‘Yaakov Yaakov–do not fear descending to Egypt’. We must therefore infer Yaakov’s trepidation. Why was Yaakov afraid? Displacement! Leaving the comforts of home, leaving the ancestral land, leaving the cradle of monotheism, leaving the tradition of his father and grandfather…there was much to fear!

Indeed, Yaakov continues to be plagued by his fears for the remainder of his life, the temporary displacement became permanent and only his coffin would return to the Promised Land. Yet, in lieu of the closing of the book of Bereishit and the impending beginning of Exodus we must ask a larger question pertaining to history, to us: how do the children of Yaakov survive this epic displacement? How does the tribe of Israel, soon to be nation of Israel, navigate the murky waters of exile, of physical and existential displacement for generations?

I believe the authors of the following midrash asked this question when they revealed the famous recipe for exilic existence and perhaps a response to dealing with displacement.

רבי הונא בשם בר קפרא אמר: בזכות דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים: שלא שינו את שמם, ולא שינו את לשונם, ולא אמרו לשון הרע…

Rav Huna in the name of Bar Kapara said in the merit of these things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: they never changed their names, they never changed their language, they never spoke ill of others….

Bar Kapara, living in Caesarea during the rule of the Romans, in another period of exile displacement, searched for the recipe for withstanding the hardships and, worse, pleasures of a displaced existence. He related to areas of character building in one’s family which when fulfilled can help navigate the existentially turbulent waters of their exile.

  1. Keep your name! More than the literal sense of maintaining the cherished monikers of our families, keeping the name means to hold our tradition strong. Keep our commitment to what it is that makes us unique, our history, our traditions. This is perhaps the first thing to wither during displacement; we cannot pray at the same Synagogue, we no longer engage in the same communal traditions—everything has changed and therefore nothing remains! So, we must keep our name, hold the line of our tradition, the consistency of ‘a sacrifice in the morning and a sacrifice in the afternoon’.
  2. and 3. Maintain our holy language. Keep engaged in Torah, in your connection to God. Being displaced from home does not automatically mean a displacement from God. We must not engage in idle gossip, speaking ill of others—this way our home will be holy, our community will keep its sanctity, our nation will grow and thrive despite the challenges. I believe this is the secret which kept the Israelites together for all those years of displacement, and which can keep us together mentally during this difficult time.
About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible--https://theisraelbible.com/bible/psalms. In summer 2019 Rabbi Baumol published "In My Grandfather's Footsteps: A Rabbi's Notes from the Frontlines of Poland's Jewish Revival".
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