At Torah Breakfast on Shabbat Lech Lecha, some dedicated members of the IJC community gathered around coffee and croissants and turned their attention to just one single sentence in the parashah, in Genesis/Bereishit 12, 10 – "Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land."
We noted in advance that the expression "there was a famine in the land" occurred elsewhere in Tenach and usually preceded migration to a different place, one in which there was plenty instead of lack, and seemed to reflect a relatively common feature of early Israel's nomadic existence (see also Genesis/Bereishit 26,1; 41,53-57; Ruth 1,1). Famines (and droughts) in the Nevi'im or prophetic books (former and latter) tended to reflect a different situation – some kind of divine punishment – and seemed to call for a different response – a change of heart. But in Genesis/Bereishit and Ruth, famines triggered migration. Families picked up their bags and headed off in search of a better life.
We also asked ourselves what this refrain "there was a famine in the land" might mean. People are forced to migrate in order to survive, in order to provide food and drink and sustenance for their children, for the next generation. In our Jewish narrative, so that God's promise could continue. We also reflected on other reasons why people might migrate: fleeing from war, poverty, destitution, persecution. Painful migrations like these are also familiar to the Jewish people throughout our history. And we drew some obvious parallels with migrations today, in Latin America, in Africa, heading from south to north, away from danger and poverty, in search of safety and prosperity.
Our final question was the following: is there a level of the text at which Abraham and his family can be seen as economic refugees. And the answer was: of course! Economic migration in Torah serves as the backstory to God's unique narrative with his people. But doesn't God have a narrative with everyone? Perhaps contemporary migration is the backstory to God's narrative with our world today.
Brian is IJC’s Rabbinical Intern