Vayechi is the final parashah in the book of Genesis (47:28-50:26) and it is unusual in a specific way that bears on the State of Israel’s new "Anti-Infiltration Law" aimed at containing 55,000 Eritrean and Sudanese political refugees seeking political asylum in Israel.
What is so unusual about Vayechi that I would make such a connection to contemporary Israel’s dilemma with African refugees?
Every Torah portion’s end is followed by nine open spaces before the first verse of the next parashah begins. But not Vayechi! It is completely closed; that is, it proceeds immediately without interruption by spaces after the last word of last week’s Torah portion Vayigash .
Rashi asks what this might mean, and he concludes that this section is closed “For when Jacob our father died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the affliction of the bondage with which the Egyptians began to enslave them.”
Rashi teaches that the enslavement of the people was the beginning of their exile, a condition characterized by spiritual blindness and a hardening of the heart.
Exile takes on many forms – physical, emotional, and spiritual. This means that a Jew can be in exile even if he/she lives in the Land of Israel, in Jerusalem the holy city, in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and within meters of the Kotel (the holiest site in Judaism).
Indeed, exile is not just about one’s physical location. It is about being separate from God and distant from the Jewish people’s core spiritual aspirations, from the Jewish people itself, from our people’s prophetic moral and ethical principles, and from humanity as a whole.
The Knesset this last week passed a new version of the “Anti-Infiltration Law,” a law that mandates placing into detention centers asylum seekers who make it to Israel. A version of the policy that allowed for detention periods of up to three years was struck down by the Israeli High Court of Justice three months ago on the grounds that it amounted to an unacceptable deprivation of liberty. This new version allows for the detention without trial for one year and for refugees to be held indefinitely in a new "open facility."
More than 55,000 refugees had made it to Israel on foot seeking political asylum as relief from Eritrean and Sudanese genocidal campaigns before Israel completed its southern security fence prohibiting further infiltration.
Though Israel has not deported them for what I presume are humanitarian reasons, I do not understand why Israel has passed this new law, why it refuses to grant these people political asylum or, shy of that, to grant them indefinite work permits until repatriation is safe. Eritreans and Sudanese refugees already work where they can in Tel Aviv’s hotels and on construction sites on a per diem basis, but they have no security as illegal aliens in the state, can be arrested and deported, and taxed heavily for whatever income they have earned thus depleting whatever financial security they have gained. It should be noted that the Eritrean and Sudanese crime rate in Israel is six times smaller than crime rates committed by Israeli citizens.
The State of Israel is a great democracy that has made great contributions in science, medicine, agriculture, water conservation, technology, education, archaeology, the arts, culture, immigrant absorption, and disaster relief in Haiti and the Philippines. It has most recently treated 800 Syrian casualties under the world's radar from the Syrian civil war, to its enormous credit.
But in this area of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, I do not understand why the Israeli government has chosen to do what it did this week.
Does Israel really wish to be closed like the end of the last parashah, shut off from its own Jewish heart and soul to peoples in desperate need?
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