Genesis 23: 2-4
Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying,“I am a resident and an alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”
For the next nine months we will be living in Ngor, an upscale neighborhood in the northern section of Dakar. While we are living in a beautiful, furnished three bedroom apartment that we found on AirBNB, most of the buildings on our block are private homes with large fences and private guards who sit sleepily at the doors to the houses. The Ukrainian ambassador to Senegal lives at the end of our street, and the blocks around us are littered with the residences of many ambassadors. Most of these houses, while large, don’t flaunt the names of the country they belong to. Rather, you have to look to find a small plaque with a county’s name on it to determine who occupies the residence.
As I was dropping my son off at his nursery school the other day I saw a huge Palestinian flag hanging from a massive mansion. I was intrigued. I haven’t really seen any flags in Dakar and this one was massive. I was about to take a picture of the building when a guard called out to me. “What are you doing?” I signaled to him and explained in my broken French that I wanted to take a picture.
Seeing the kippah on my head he said: Êtes-vous Juif? Êtes-vous Israélien? (Are you Jewish? Are you Israeli?) No!
I smiled politely and walked away, not wanting to engage much more with this man. It was my first time encountering any opposition or negative reaction to my being Jewish here.
The next day my wife and I were walking on the same street together. A man stopped us on the street very excitedly. “Êtes-vous Juif?” He asked. “Uh oh, I thought to myself, not again…”
He grabbed my hand and started to shake it with great fervor. He pointed at my kippah and said “You must feel at home here in Senegal. It is so great that you are wearing you hat. Feel at home here. Act in Senegal as you would at home.”
The contrast could not have been more stark. On the same block, two completely opposite reactions to my being Jewish. Afterwards, Bina pointed out to me that I am probably the only person with tzitzit and a kippah in the entire country of 16 million people here. The truth is that our outward Jewish identity has led to a lot of support and enthusiasm and barely any critique.
Another example: Yesterday, Bina and I went to buy fish for Shabbat. We asked the person cutting the fish to please clean his knife really well before cutting our fish we explained that we keep kosher, similar to Hallal, and that we need the knife to be cleaned. Everyone in the fish store got very excited when we told them we were Jewish. One person jumped up and even proclaimed how much his likes Bibi Netanyahu (just a few short hours before he was indicted!) The whole situation was pretty funny.
I don’t have a clear sense of what Senegalese perceptions of Judaism and Israel are, but my sense is that it is incredibly positive. This is rather baffling, seeing that the Muslim world at large has a less than positive view of Jews and Israel, yet this overwhelmingly Muslim country seems to be so much more tolerant and accepting.
Senegalese people are very proud of their tolerance. Outwardly, this is a rather religious country. The calls to prayer reverberate across the city every day (“Abba I hear the Muslims davening mincha,” my son said to me one day this week). But it is also a secular democracy. The first president of Senegal was a secular French educated poet, and the most famous pictures of him depict him reading a book of poetry. This seems to engender a tolerance and acceptance of different ways of life that is quite unique in such a religious society.
I’ll end with a thought on the parsha that I have been thinking about this week. A large part of life here is negotiating prices for items and services. Only at the fancy French supermarkets are prices listed. Everywhere else you haggle.
It’s not easy to always negotiate. I frequently feel like I am being taking somewhat advantage of because I am white and speak poor French. In this week’s Torah portion Avraham engaged in a complicated negotiation with the Hittites in order to acquire a burial plot for his wife Sarah.
He begins his negotiation by saying “I am a resident and an alien amongst you.” This is very strange language. Either Abraham belongs, that is to say he is a resident, or he is an alien, a foreigner and does not belong. How can he be both?
The truth is that it is clear that he is both a resident and a foreigner. He now lives in the land of Canaan, making him a resident, but he knows that he is an immigrant to this foreign land and does not fully fit in with the locals.
In the past week we have felt really welcomed as new residents to our adopted country of the year, and as total foreigners struggling to understand local customs and at times feeling like fish out of water. I have found this to be a very special experience. Both belonging and feeling like you don’t belong at the same time engenders a sense of appreciation for what you have that I don’t normally feel in life.
I think that this is actually a deep religious ethos that the Torah wants to teach. “You are strangers and residents with Me” (Leviticus 25:23), God tells the Jewish people, echoing Abraham’s language. It is important to feel at home, to be stable to be grounded, but being too grounded can be spiritually destructive. By remembering that we are humans, guests on God’s earth, we can live life with much more humility and gratitude for what we have. I have definitely been feeling a lot more gratitude for what we have now that we have moved to a foreign country. I hope that this continues even after we leave Senegal and begin to live a more conventional life.