This narrative has threaded its way through the lives of the Jewish people since time immemorial. For centuries, Jews have been forced to relocate from their homelands. From Spain to Poland, Iraq, Portugal, Israel, and now in France, where Jews are feeling uncomfortable and threatened – we are a nation that knows the feeling of being uprooted. I often think about the journey of the Jewish people and how it is one that has been fraught with pain. But, this compelling tale of extrication and relocation is precisely what has come to define us as we courageously forge our way as a resilient nation that triumphs in the face of adversity.
I left South Africa for rainy London nearly four years ago, a move that also meant leaving my father’s house, birthplace and country. Although offered a job in London in early 2012, my work visa only came through in October 2013, after a long and arduous process.
At the time, I was teaching in Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s Beit Midrash at King David Victory Park. As fate would have it, I started teaching Parshat Lech Lecha the week I was notified that my visa had been approved. This obviously meant I would soon be packing my bags to move to London, and it also meant that for the duration of my time in South Africa, I continued to teach the parsha. The test that Abraham encountered resonated deeply for me and I was struck by the intense pain involved with extricating myself from all that was beloved and familiar to me. This is a feeling all ex-pats can identify with, as we transport ourselves to foreign lands.
I recall the obvious synergy that was so evident between the material I was teaching and how I felt about leaving my life in South Africa. The explanation on this verse offered by the famous commentator Rashi explains that the reason G-d asked this of Abraham was to ensure he would start on a fresh canvas when he became the lauded father of the Jewish people. G-d had to ensure he was free of any spiritually contaminated residue that may have impacted his soul. Rashi explains that these three places (one’s land, one’s birthplace and one’s father’s house) contribute to shaping a person’s identity. G-d wanted Abraham to have an identity that would be moulded afresh by a pure and holy connection – free from the idol worshipping ways and experiences to which he had been witness in his father’s house.
The overwhelming experience of ex-pats is that the initial stages of leaving always carries with them those same feelings that Abraham, our historic forefather, experienced as he trail-blazed his way forward in a foreign land. We all miss something different, but no one leaves unscathed by that signature yearning. As the Talmud teaches: “A person always retains a special endearment for his birthplace.”
As I sat on the plane reflecting on this life-changing journey I was about to undertake, I realised that my last Shabbat in South Africa had indeed been Parshat Lech Lecha! It could not have been more aligned for me. The plane ride was obviously an emotional one and I could not help but think this new journey would offer me a clean canvas, just as it did for Abraham and Sara thousands of years before me. Little did I realise the challenges involved in recreating an identity and what it would mean to rebuild from scratch as I entered a strange land, naïve and hopeful. I recall what it felt like to walk into shul on my first Shabbat and how it felt not knowing a single soul, barring the rabbi. I recall thinking: “What on earth have I done? What was I thinking leaving everything I knew to be my reality?”
I find that Shabbos helps to close that gap as, week after week, newcomers like me slowly integrate into new communities and the chasm of unfamiliar territory closes, bit by bit. I think G-d knew how dispersed we would be as the eons of time march on, and as an antidote to the feelings of isolation, he built in Shabbat, the day where we get to connect to everything we know to be our own – the universal experience we share with our seemingly foreign brethren – so we begin to see that, in essence, we are not so different, but on a fundamental level, very much the same.
I have come to realise that culture does play a significant role in how comfortable we feel in our new lives, but it is not the only factor in the equation. Our Jewish heritage is our sacred inheritance that is all the more defining as we realise that the common goals of Shabbat, charity and Jewish values unite us universally. The priceless gene we inherited from Abraham is the ability to rebuild ourselves by accessing G-d and his holy Torah. Lech Lecha. Go forth to the lands that G-d has shown you!
Shira Druion is Joburg born and raised, she has been a journalist for the past 10 years. She is responsible for marketing/PR and programming for young professionals at Chazak, a prominent outreach organisation in London. She also runs Dramatix, a drama company for children of all ages. When she isn't working, she’s doing yoga or writing her blog, thespicylife.blog