Parsha Masei - More than just a bibilical satnav
The following D'var Torah was written for a 'zoom' Shabbat service by JCORE's chair, Adam Rose.
The Parsha of Masei begins with a retelling of the story of the physical journey that the Israelites took, from leaving Rameses in Egypt, through the 42 different stops along the way that they took on their journey into Israel. And it is the physical journey that I want us to focus on, in itself, and not just as a metaphor for the spiritual journey.
Masei reads like a biblical satnav – straight ahead to Succoth, then pitch in Etam, then turn back into Pi-hahirot, then Migdol, then via Etam (which they had been at some time earlier) to Marah, then Elim, to the Red Sea, and north via Sin, Dophkah, Alush, and it goes on and on and on. The 42nd and final stop is Moab.
Each journey recounted, and each pitch-camp noted.
There's some really difficult stuff – particularly those paragraphs setting out where peoples are to be driven out of their lands.
But there's some great, familiar Israel Tour stuff here too: "the border shall go down, and shall strike upon the sea of Kinneret eastward, and the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Salt Sea."
What I want to focus on is the concept of physical wandering, and of the great movements of people – which we have always seen throughout history, which we read of in Masei, and which we see very much today too.
But first, let me relate some personal notes, which resonate with the journeys recounted in Masei:
I have tried for many, many years to work out the story of my maternal grandmother. What I know is this. She ended up in London in 1924 as a 4 year old, arriving in the East End docks on a ship which had come from Danzig (as it then was, and is now known better as Gdansk).
She was an orphan. And it seems that she had been selected, at the last minute, to join 18 other young children (although none as young as her) from the three Jewish Orphanages in Pinsk, to come to London.
And here in London, she was taken in by the wonderful, and childless, Schweitzers. She took on their name, and only found out at as an older teenager that she had been adopted. To the extent that we can find any documents about her, the woman I knew as Betty Gilbert (nee – but not literally nee! - Schweitzer) seems to have arrived on false papers, in the name of Sora Basha Bregman. We know those were false papers, as, two years later, the real Sora Basha Bregman arrived.
And so 100 years after she was born in Pinsk, in 1920, or so we think, we know nothing else about her earliest story, other than she travelled from what she called Poland, and is now Belarus, to London, on false papers, on a ship with 18 other youngsters. I know that the bit about her coming to London on a ship is true, as I have a photo of her on the ship – she's the littlest one. So, she was my grandmother on my mother's side.
My grandmother on my father's side has a different, incredible story of refuge and movement. Having always thought I was 100% Ashkenazi, I suddenly discovered from my research culminating just before Pesach 2018 that my paternal grandmother's line had arrived in London as long ago as the 1720s, via Amsterdam, and from Spain and Portugal some unknown time before that – but possibly, despite the Inquisition starting in 1478, only in the late 1600s or even – and I think more likely – the early 1700s.
It turns out that I derive from the de la Penhas, the Castros, the de Mendozas, and eventually the Van Dams and the Blocks when my great-great-grandmother (Welcome Mendoza) married out – "oy gevalt!", or as they would have said, "Atyo Santo!" – let me clarify: when she married out by marrying … an Ashkenazi Jew.
The Roses (who had themselves come here from Russia and Odessa and adopted that surname) were probably Ashkenazim all the way back. The first family member in London appears to have been Aron de Daniel Mendoza. Certainly, his son married Sarah Torrez Figaroa at Bevis Marks in the 1760s.
And I am sure I am not unique in having this background – of arriving here this morning from a background of Eastern Europe, of Southern Europe, of North Africa, of the Middle East, or wherever.
All of which brings me to the thing that really resonates with me from the story of Masei. I am chair of JCORE, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality. As a charity, we do two main things: we campaign for racial equality, seeking to bring a Jewish voice to this issue, and we run various practical programmes to help refugees and asylum seekers.
Some of you are involved, or have been involved, with our Jump programme – a project which pairs befrienders with young, unaccompanied refugees and asylum-seekers. Our befriender is often the only volunteer whom a young, unaccompanied refugee might come across – everyone else they deal with is likely to be being paid: the doctor, the social worker, the teacher, the foster family, the solicitor.
And what I wanted to share with you this morning, is the story of the typical unaccompanied minor, whose journey is not so dissimilar to that of the Israelites retold in Masei – the youngster who gets separated from his family, or is sent off by his family (and typically, it is a 'he'), to find his new home. He might be from Syria, or Afghanistan, or the DRC or Sudan or Libya or Chad or Somalia or Vietnam. He is likely to have travelled through a number of countries, grabbing lifts, normally unpaid and unknown to the driver. He typically arrives in the UK after being variously arrested, beaten up, robbed.
Of living wild or in camps, along the way.
Of near-starvation, and living on the edge.
The unaccompanied minor is typically a teenager on departure from wherever home might have been and might still be a teenager on arrival here some years later – but, like my maternal grandmother, he might not remember his real name, or his parents, or his age or date of birth. He might vaguely remember where he came from.
The police might find him walking up the M20 from Dover. Or he might turn up at a church, seeking shelter and food. Or asleep by the roadside somewhere in Kent or London. And there are some wonderful people and some amazing services in the UK which in very difficult and straightened times do amazing things for these youngsters.
But there is also the hostile environment – still the Government's official policy – of making asylum-seeking difficult.
The story of Masei, of today's parsha, is one of journeying, from one's country of birth to seeking refuge in a new land, a new hope and opportunity, a new beginning, becoming a new person - a person who has left their land of birth, has travelled through 42 stops along the way, and has arrived in a new place with new people.
And whether it is 42 stops on the journey from Egypt to Israel, or in my case, from Pinsk or Spain to London, or in an unaccompanied youngster's journey from Damascus to Finchley, the lessons of those journeys explain how we are where we are today, and – as individuals and as a people – this, our personal journey and our communal journey, is at the very root and essence of who we are. Shabbat Shalom.