The phrase “there was a famine in the land” appears only three times in total in the Tanakh. First, a few weeks ago, when Avram and Sarai head down into Egypt. There, concerned for his safety, he lies about his wife, and that she is his sister. In doing so, he puts her in direct and personal danger. It eventually gets revealed and resolved to his benefit. He eventually settles in Gerar, where he, for the second time, lies that his wife is his sister, which puts Sarah, again, into direct danger with Abimelech. This too gets revealed and resolved to his benefit.
The second time is in this week’s portion, Toldot, but we’re told explicitly, “Aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham!” Not the same famine, but another one. Isaac begins to head for Egypt, following in the footsteps of his father. However, God stops him — “do not go down to Egypt,” do not follow the same path. Instead, Isaac remains in Gerar, when the men of the area start asking about Rebecca. Isaac tells everyone that Rebecca is his sister, hoping to protect himself. This too gets revealed, but Abimelech appears to have learned his lesson and wisely encourages everyone to steer clear of Isaac and his family.
The third mention of the phrase “there was a famine in the land” starts the book of Ruth, leading Naomi’s husband to head into Moab. Her sons marry Moabite women, one of which is Ruth, who returns to the land of Judah with her mother-in-law.
In each of these stories, we find two central themes, first, crossing into other lands, namely, Egypt, Gerar, and the land of Judah. Second, we find that the women in these stories are in profoundly vulnerable positions. Sarah and Rebecca, whose husbands lie as a form of protection, are put directly in danger. Ruth and Naomi who, seeking financial sustainability and security, leave Moab for the land of Judah, not knowing what they will be able to accomplish.
These stories resonate with me as I reflect on the lessons of my travels to the southern U.S. border earlier in November. I ask myself, have we learned the lessons of our experience? Have we reflected on the journeys of our people and how they reflect others?
In last week’s paper, the Chronicle published the story of Gisele, who fled violence, with her teenage daughter, to come and seek safety and security. When she eventually made it here to the United States, she was told to wait. In her waiting, she was kidnapped and threatened.
We have, over the course of the last few weeks, been told of nearly 100,000 children who have been separated from their families. They have been placed in the most vulnerable positions, like the women in our stories. We know this because six children have died in the custody of our government: Darlyn, Jakelin, Felipe, Juan, Wilmer and Carlos.
Their stories are like the stories of our people. Not just Sarah, Rebecca, Ruth and Naomi, but the stories of my family, Samuel, Elena, Dora and Seymour who escaped from Ukraine, Poland and Germany.
How is their story different than Gisele’s or Juan’s?
“There was a famine in the land” is a reminder of the vulnerability we have all faced and is a harbinger for the future.
It is a reminder that we too have crossed boundaries for protection, as our people did to Egypt, just like those from Honduras.
It is a reminder that famine and climate change are forcing people, as Abraham, Isaac and their families, to seek safety, just like those from Guatemala.
It is a reminder that new opportunities for a better life, as Naomi and Ruth sought, are just as important to those from El Salvador.
Their story is our story and it is the story we are telling this week. pjc
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is the director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.