Sermon by Rabbi Jim Prosnit – August 2018
Not by Bread Alone – Immigrant Stories
There’s a bit of inconsistency in the section of Deuteronomy that we’ll read tomorrow morning.
On one hand the text extols the material virtues of the Promised Land to which the Israelites are about to enter. “For God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.”
But before this idealized description of the Land of Israel we find another sentence in the text, which is often quoted, yet seems to contradict, invalidate the magnificent picture that the earlier verses described. “Man does not live by bread alone.” This statement is made in connection with the description of the hardships endured by the Israelites in the wilderness and seems to imply that the reason why they went to the Promised Land should not only be stated in material terms.
How to reconcile the two statements?
Perhaps to reflect on the challenges facing immigrants or refugees who have moved to a new place. As has often been stated in this country most all of us are descendants of immigrants – and I dare say the majority of our ancestors who came here – be it generations ago or more recently, came to better themselves economically. Whether they believed that this was the Promised Land or not; and whether they imagined that streets were paved with gold or not; they rightfully assumed that the material prospects were better here than in the old country. Despite many hardships and failures, in most cases those assumptions have been vindicated by us their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
But for those who immigrated, it was not all happiness. Even if in retrospect they were able to blot out much of the misery from their consciousness, most experienced great disorientation. On one level, most immigrants are happy and grateful for even when poor by US standards, they are infinitely better off materially than they could ever have been in their former land – be it Poland or Ireland, Cambodia or the Philippines, Haiti or El Salvador, Syria or South Sudan. Invariably they send some of the little money they earn here, back to loved ones in their place of origin.
Yet and I hate to generalize – most immigrants are not necessarily happy people, for socially and psychologically they are uprooted and isolated from what they knew. Perhaps it is only when one’s material conditions have been improved and at least some of the needs satisfied, that we really realize that we do not live by bread alone. For true welfare, more is needed than food and clothing and shelter. Never less, but always more! To have basic necessities is essential, but that in itself does not make for happiness.
I have sometimes quoted by mentor Rabbi Dow Marmur. He recently wrote a memoir entitled Six Lives. Born in Poland, he survived the Second World War in Siberia, became a refugee after the war in Sweden, went to rabbinic school in England, served as the senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada where I met him and now lives in Israel. For those travelling in March – I look forward to your meeting this remarkable man. He writes, “I came with my parents to Sweden in 1948. Our lives consisted of fleeing from the Germans into Russian territory at the outbreak of World War II, hard labor and starvation in different parts of the Soviet Union, return to the ruins of what once had been our home country in Poland in 1946. Materially, Sweden was paradise and we knew it and appreciated it. Yet, I only remember miserable people around me, and I myself was in the grip of a nameless collective depression which, perhaps has never left me. Why? Because precisely once we had settled in the Promised Land that was Sweden we became aware that we were lonely, isolated from the indigenous population, lost. We knew then that bread alone is not enough.”
I reflect on his story tonight not only due to the Torah portion this Shabbat, but because of the stories that continue to occupy the news cycles throughout this summer regarding the immigration policies unfolding before. It’s hard enough to pick up and move; most folks do so only when the situations of their lives become deplorable – and layers of road blocks and delays, separations, incarcerations make the harshness that much harsher and I’m certain will have consequences for these families that linger long beyond the present moment.
A short commercial — your invited on Wednesday night August 15 to join me here along with representatives from CIRI – CT Institute for Refugees and Immigrants to hear some stories and learn more of what we as individuals and perhaps a congregation can do to provide bread –material assistance and perhaps some spiritual connection well.