by Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet
We, too, were once yusta
Dear Rabbi As an Orthodox rabbi, what’s your view on the ongoing refugee crisis?
The Midrash relates how, in the days of the Roman Empire, in the city of Tzipori, a town just west of Tiberius, there lived a simple man named Yusta. He served as the tailor, sitting and sewing all day at his spot along the town’s main street.
During a visit to Rome, this simple man managed to encounter the Emperor and, over a sequence of events, found favour in his eyes. As a gesture, the Emperor offered to grant Yusta any wish. The tailor asked to be appointed governor over his native city. When Yusta, now the newly- appointed head of his city, returned to Tzipori, the townspeople began to argue: “Was the new governor actually their old tailor?”
Some said it was Yusta, while others maintained this was impossible. How could the simple tailor have risen so dramatically? One wise man suggested a simple test: While parading through the city marketplace, the new governor would pass the place where good old Yusta once sat and tailored. “If the governor turns his head to gaze at that spot, we will know he is Yusta,” said the wise man. “If he passes by without looking, we will know he is not.”
So the next time the governor passed down the main street, those watching saw him turn and look longingly at his old workplace, and everyone knew the governor was Yusta the tailor. But having lived with him for many years, why were the townspeople unable to recognise the face of their old landsman? And if they were unsure of his identity, would it not have been simpler to just ask him who he was? Yet perhaps the debate among the townspeople concerning their new governor was not whether he was, in fact, Yusta. Of course he was. Everyone recognised him as such.
There was a much deeper question raging between them. We know the governor is Yusta – but does the governor know he’s Yusta? Has this man who has now risen to prominence forgotten his humble beginnings? Had the modest Yusta retained his integrity upon rising to power, or had he been replaced by a pompous, self-centred politician? Said the wise man: “Let us determine, if while parading through the city as its new master, Yusta looks back to his shop, to where he came from, to his meek and unpretentious start in life recalling his former self as a tailor.” We have all progressed through life. We have all advanced; we’re all accomplished as we will have risen to prominence each in our individual way. But do we recall our humble beginnings? Do we remember how we were but mere tailors and cobblers, shoemakers and farmers who came to these shores sometimes with little or nothing but the shirts on our backs, escaping the persecutions left behind?
The acid test of how well we remember is reflected in whether we dare look back – behind us to others who may today be undergoing a similar plight. You open your newspaper and switch on your TV and see images of people struggling to escape their war-torn countries; images of flimsy boats overloaded with people desperately trying to reach safe shores. And, alas, images of the many who perish in the process – young and old alike. And no matter how horrific the images of people drowning, the atrocities they are fleeing are far worse. You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land. So do we look back – do we identify with their trouble or have we become so pompous in our own lives to become indifferent to them? Every one of us is here today on account of our ancestry if not immediate family that at some point ran for their lives and someone somewhere reached out and gave them refuge.
Every one of us is Yusta. And maybe we have become doctors and lawyers and rabbis and successful businessmen. But what are we like when we pass the old tailor shop? What sort of emotions is evoked when we see others facing a similar plight? Do we look on with the same indifference for which we still blame the world when it turned its back on countless of our own brothers and sisters? Or do we remember with some degree of humility our humble beginnings and appreciate that something must be done for others in the same boat – literally. I would imagine some make distinctions. Maybe some feel the response to those coming from certain countries is distinctly different.
Of course you do – because prejudice is one of the principle constituents of the human personality. And all those years ago, make no mistake about it, there were those who thought and felt the same about us as Jews. We called it anti-Semitism. And you do have to wonder in what way we might be any different. Yes, there has to be integration and that process is long and protracted. But I had major surgery this past summer by an Egyptian doctor who became my hero. I have a friend whose child’s life was saved by a Pakistani doctor. Many of us will interact almost daily with people from different cultures that contribute to our lives.
The bottom line is this: When a world has people who are refugees, you know there’s something deeply wrong with our whole culture, our priorities and our humanity. Yusta passed the test. Even as governor, he never forgot where he came from. Looking back upon that place where he once sat and sewed, he remembered his humble origins. We, too, must ponder our own humble beginnings and be sufficiently moved about the plight of others as well. We are all of a people and it all comes down to one of the opening verses in the Bible: “And God created man in His image.” We all live with the objective of striving to be in His image; our lives are all different and yet the same. If we all respected that reality, if you really believe “you are God’s child,” about yourself, then you would believe that about others as well, because you know God has many children.