Parashat Chukat: Feeling kinship with the world’s displaced

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

As I was preparing to write this message, I read a disturbing news article. Barbara Surk and John Heilprin of The Associated Press reported that the U.N. Commission on Refugees had announced that the number of men, women and children displaced from their homes is greater now than at any time since World War II – more than 51 million worldwide (and this does not include the 500,000 who have fled their homes in Iraq in recent days). Roughly one-third of these folks – just under 17 million – have crossed  borders of their countries to seek refuge or asylum in other lands.

I went back to this week’s Torah Portion, Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1, and was drawn to two sections of the Sedra. In the first (Numbers 20:14-21), Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom for permission for the Israelites to pass through his land: 

“We will not cross field or vineyard and we will not drink water from wells. We will stay on the king’s highway, and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed beyond your border.” 

But Edom replied, “You shall not pass through us, else we come out against you with the sword.” 


The people of Israel persisted. 

“We will keep to the beaten track, and if we or our anrimals would drink we will pay, only let us pass through on foot.” 

Scripture states, “They replied, ‘You shall not pass through,’ and Edom came out to meet them in large numbers, heavily armed. So Edom refused to let Israel cross their border, and Israel turned away from them.”

Similarly, the second passage (Numbers 21:21-2v5, which some scholars suggest is a second version of the previous incident) depicts a mission to Sichon, king of the Amorites, with the petition to traverse his territory:

“Let us pass through your country. We will not turn off into field or vineyard or drink water from wells. We will stay on the king’s highway until we have passed beyond your border.” 

Then the Torah tells us that “Sichon would not allow Israel to cross his border but came out against Israel in the wilderness, and at Jahatz fought against Israel, but Israel put them to the sword and took possession of their land.”

It seems to me that we Jews, spiritual heirs of those who escaped from Egypt, the biblical refugees who wandered the wilderness – and often ourselves, displaced persons or descendants of displaced persons – should feel a special concern for today’s driven whether in or from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Colombia, Vietnam, Eritrea, or wherever. 

Perhaps this is the reason that among those organizations that strive to aid (non-Jewish as well as Jewish) refugees, there are agencies like the American Jewish World Service and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Through them, although we cannot solve the tragically growing global refugee problem, perhaps we can help to save one human life, which, as our Talmudic sages taught us, is like saving the whole world.

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.