During the past year, TV, tablet and laptop screens have been filled with images of refugees in terrible plight, fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Libya. In recent months the gaze of the cameras has focused on images of dilapidated boats crammed full of people desperate to escape Libyan shores; of thousands drowning, and of famished and exhausted survivors arriving in Sicily, Italy and the Greek islands.

In the midst of rescue attempts and action taken to meet the immediate needs of migrants for food, water and shelter, political wrangling in the corridors of power across Europe, as state after state focuses their attention on accepting as few refugees as possible. Just in the past week, the news, on these shores at least, has been taken up with images of refugees and migrants closer to home in makeshift camps in Calais. They have been there all along – but the strike of ferry workers protesting the proposed closure of ferry routes, which brought ferries and the Channel Tunnel to a standstill, saw hundreds seizing the opportunity to try and get into queuing trucks and cars. Hence: the cameras. France doesn’t want them and the British government has made it clear that they are not welcome in Britain, either.

The UN Refugee Agency [UNRA], providing data at the end of 2014 – that is, before the present crisis in Libya – calculated that: “There were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014, 14.4 million under the mandate of UNHCR [the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] around 2.9 million more than in 2013.” This figure does not include what are known as ‘Internally Displaced Persons.’ According to the UNRA, during 2014 “About 38.2 million people were forcibly uprooted and displaced within their own country…  Continued fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic brought the number of IDPs in that country to 7.6 million, the highest number anywhere in the world.” The figures are stunning – they should stun us. Some more statistics: During 2014, “conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries.” Speaking of ‘other countries’: “Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.” And of course, as we have become aware, so many of the world’s refugees today are children: “Last year, 51% of refugees were under 18 years old. This is the highest figure for child refugees in more than a decade.”

Again: The statistics I’ve quoted are for 2014 – no doubt the figures at the end of 2015 will be even higher. So, what to do? Following the British General Election on May 7, the government has been empowered to carry out its pre-election promises concerning limiting immigration to Britain – from the European Union and beyond. The first priority, as the government sees it, is to serve the needs of UK citizens, and in particular, UK taxpayers, referred to repeatedly in pre-election campaigning as ‘working people.’ So, does that mean that this island should not be a refuge for refugees and asylum seekers?

Britain has not got a great record on refugees. With the onset of World War II, Jewish refugees to Britain were initially interned as enemy aliens. My late mother’s closest friend, who fled Berlin for London with her family in 1933, and found herself placed next to my Yiddish speaking mother in class, so she would have someone to talk to, was interned on the Isle of Man with her mother and sister when war broke out. Numerous books and articles have been written about British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust’, as the subtitle of one book puts it. A generation earlier, my mother’s parents had been part of the great movement of refugees from Tsarist Russia, which spanned the years 1880 to 1914. The negative attitude of the British government at that time was made plain in the Aliens Act of 1902. Perhaps, island nations are always wary of new arrivals from across the sea… In any event, the figures for Europe for 2014 show that relative to each country’s population, Sweden received the most asylum applicants per million: 8,365. The figures for the key nations of Western Europe are much lower: Germany, 2,513; Belgium, 2,016; Italy, 1,060; France, 972; and the UK just 494.

I haven’t mentioned Jewish refugees from Nazism and from Russian pogroms merely to furnish historical examples of British government policy on immigration. The Jewish people, has been a refugee people from the beginning – or at least a people perennially on the move, since the time that, according to the Book of Genesis, Abraham’s father, Terach, left Ur of the Chaldees in lower Mesopotamia to journey to Canaan, and settled en route in Haran. Abraham and Sarah took up the journey again, and arrived in Canaan, although famine in the land brought them to Egypt for a brief sojourn.

The distinction made in current debates between refugees and migrants is problematic. If responses in Britain are anything to go by, many people who are sympathetic towards refugees – those who are in flight from persecution – are hostile to migrants, who leave their home country in search of a better and more prosperous life. As it happens, our ancestors were migrants who became refugees. According to the Torah, like Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his family also went down to Egypt to escape famine, seeking to benefit from the storehouses of grain. However, generations later, their descendants became slaves, and after 430 years of settlement, the Israelites were escapees in search of refuge.

Of course, there is a difference between escaping persecution and taking flight from economic hardship – but in both cases, people leave their homes because they feel they must do so in order to survive. We live in a world divided between rich and poor. In those nations, where the market economy reigns supreme and there is little state regulation to ameliorate its excesses – in the USA for example – there are huge divisions between the haves and have-nots. But apart from the internal landscape of inequality within the prosperous nations, the gap between the wealthy ‘developed’ countries and the much poorer ‘developing’ countries is vast. Is it any wonder that poverty drives people to leave their homes in search of a better life? And shouldn’t we, who live relatively secure lives, free of the hazards of political instability, conflict, persecution and poverty, be prepared to offer migrants, as well as refugees, a home amongst us?

I will leave that question hovering for a moment to turn to this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, to glean some teaching. Between the tale of the rebellion of Korach and his co-conspirators in the second year after the departure from Egypt narrated in last week’s portion (Numbers 12 -17), and the account of the death of Miriam ‘in the first month’ of the final year of the wilderness wanderings in Chukkat (Numbers 20:1ff.), there is a lacuna, a gap, in the narrative of 38 years. According Sh’lach L’kha, the parashah read the week before Korach, following the ill-fated reconnoitre of the land beyond the Jordan the people were sentenced to 40 years of wandering. We read in Numbers 14 (33-34):

Your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness 40 years, and shall bear your betrayals, until the last of your carcasses are finished off in the wilderness. / According to the number of the days in which you saw the land, 40 days, a day for each year, you shall bear your iniquities, 40 years…

So, after the rebellious incidents recorded in Sh’lach L’kha and Korach: 38 years – and not a word about them. All we know is that the people who fled slavery in Egypt spent, not just two years, but a further 38 years living and dying in the wilderness. The Torah makes it abundantly clear that the wilderness – ha-midbar – is by definition, a place of ‘nothingness’ – that is devoid of the basic requirements for life; a barren desert – with the exception of the occasional oasis. In earlier chapters of the Book of Numbers, which narrate the first two years of the journey, the ex-slaves overwhelmed by the challenges of a desert existence, longed to return to their former place of servitude, where at least they could be sure they would be fed and watered. And the problems of life in the desert were evident right from the beginning. In B’shallach, the portion which relates the Exodus from Egypt, we learn that after crossing the Sea of Reeds, ‘they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. / And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Mara , for they were bitter. Therefore, its name was Marah.’

Three days without water. It is not possible for human beings to survive more than three days without water. The message is unequivocal: the desert is not meant for human habitation. And then, significantly, when the narrative is taken up again after a lacuna of 38 years, the Torah relates in this week’s parashah, Chukkat, at Numbers 20: verses 1-2:

The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month; and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. / And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.

When Aaron died, which was shortly afterwards,  and when Moses died later,  we read that the congregation mourned for ‘thirty days.’ In the absence of any mention of mourning rituals for Miriam, the rabbinic sages connected these two events – Miriam’s death and the lack of water – by relating the legend of Miriam’s Well. According to that legend, Miriam’s Well accompanied the people on all their journeys through the wilderness until her death: hence the lack of water after she died; hence the people’s rebellion – which was no doubt also an expression of their grief and loss.

The legend of Miriam’s Well provides a corrective to the paucity of material concerning Miriam in the Exodus and wilderness narratives: a mere 29 verses in all are devoted to her in the Torah – 16 of which relate to her rebellion against the leadership of her youngest sibling, Moses. The etymological connection between Miriam’s name and Marah, the name given to the place of ‘bitter’ waters that the people encountered just three days into their wilderness journey is redeemed by the legend; any bitterness that Miriam may have felt as a consequence of her displacement by her younger brother, transformed into the life-giving waters of her well.

The reintroduction of the theme of the absence of water, immediately after the 38 year gap in the narrative also brings us back to the central issue concerning human survival in the desert: it’s simply not possible without water – hence the Torah narrative’s reliance on Divine providence and miracles. And the miracles continued. We read in Chukkat that following Miriam’s death, water came gushing out of a rock, after Moses, instructed by the Eternal, had ‘spoken’ to it with his rod. One strike would have sufficed, but in his rage, Moses struck the rock twice, and so for his apparent failure to ‘believe’ and ‘sanctify’ the Eternal ‘in the eyes of the Israelites’, he was condemned to die in due course in the wilderness, just like the rest of his generation.

From the perspective of the Torah, the survival of the wilderness wanderers was due to Divine intervention.  For those who do not believe in miracles, the question remains: how did our ancestors survive in the desert for forty years? Of course, we cannot answer that question – not least because of that spectacular 38 year lacuna in the narrative. So, maybe we should ask another question – which brings us back to the global refugee crisis we are witnessing today: in the absence of Divine intervention, how are people – in Britain, in Europe, and across the world – going to respond to the plight of the refugees? What are the governments of the developed nations going to do to enable those driven from their homes by persecution, war and poverty to survive? When are those with the power and resources to provide safe refuge going to intervene? And when are we – the ordinary citizens of those countries that can offer assistance – going to realise that we have a responsibility to call on the governments that we elect to act – without further delay. Of course, we – those ordinary citizens – do not speak with one voice, but each one of us has a voice – or at least a means of communicating what we think – and each one of us must speak now in any way we can. The oft-quoted words of the sage Hillel, who lived in the first century BCE, bear repetition:

Im eyn li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

U’khshe’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? But if I’m only for myself, what am I?

V’im lo akhshav, eimatai? And if not now, when?

May Hillel’s essential questions find their answer in our resolute actions. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

27th June 2015 – 10th Tammuz 5775