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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Shabbat Pinchas 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon here or read below.

Imagine what it’s like to live in constant fear that people will find out that you aren’t who you say you are?

To feel your whole existence rests upon a secret, a lie, a story that if people knew might jeopardize everything you have come to love, everything that has made you who you are and allows you to care for your family. 

Imagine holding that secret so closely that even your almost wife doesn't know. 

I’m not talking about imposter syndrome, the feeling that there is a disconnect between who the world sees you as and who you are, im talking quite literally- and you’ll perhaps know what I’m talking about if you’re one of the 2.8 million people who watched Mo Farah, British Olympic hero, sit down in front of the camera and and explain to the country that he is not who he has said he is. Hussein Abdi Kahin came to the UK as a child after his father was killed in the civil war in Somalia, trafficked by a woman under the name Mohammad Farah. 

He was used as a domestic servant by a family, until he eventually told a PE teacher his true identity and was removed from their care. Mo’s PE teacher helped him obtain asylum and British citizenship, under the name Mohammad Farah. He never revealed his story for fear that he might lose his citizenship should anyone find out that he arrived in the UK illegally, or that the name he uses is not his real name. It’s a legitimate fear, if your citizenship has been found to be obtained illegally then you can be stripped of it. The Home Office has told the BBC they will not take action against Farah because he was a child when his citizenship was obtained and it is assumed children are not complicit in any deception. 

But what about if you’re not Mo Farah, what about if you’re Samet, an Albanian child trafficked into the UK when he was 15, taken into care, and then had your claim refused when you turned 18- still waiting for an appeal two years on. Or Yasmin, who arrived in the UK when she was 3, was used as a domestic servant, abused in the home she lived in for ten years before she was taken away from the people who trafficked her, and several applications down the line is still waiting for her status. 

I read this week that "Just 2% of child trafficking victims are given discretionary leave to remain, which they are entitled to under international law, according to government figures. Instead, many have temporary visas until just before their 18th birthday when they are then pushed through the asylum system and face refusal and lengthy appeals or deportation.

Of all over-18s who were trafficked to the UK as unaccompanied children, 35% were initially refused asylum in 2020."

Is Mo Farah’s case different because unlike many victims of trafficking he did not become involved in county lines or other gangs? Because he did not turn to drug use as a result of his trauma? 

How might Mo Farah’s week have been different if he wasn’t an Olympic champion? Or, to put it crudely, how many gold medals do you need to protect you from a threat to your life and livelihood? A national hero with a tragic past is almost a perfect victim- but is his story the exception that ought to draw attention to the less palatable norms?

I know it’s a difficult question to ask- but an important one, because it raises the question of how absolute someone’s right is to be treated fairly. 

When Isabelle read the daughters of Zelophchad’s story, she quoted their plea to Moses, which is worded in an interesting way. They say: “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against יהוה, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.” 

Why these details? They say he died in the wilderness, explains the Chatam Sofer, because it means he was worthy of redemption, if he had died in Egypt then perhaps he was not someone who deserved to be saved. And why do they say he was not one of Korach’s faction, explains Ibn Ezra that Moses needs to know that their father did not act against him, as the company of Korach themselves were swallowed by the ground, but there was a suggestion that those who joined the murmurings were also to be punished by not inheriting land. 

The daughters of Zelophchad feel they need to explain to Moses that there are no mitigating circumstances that could undermine the value of their case. It’s understandable, and I also think it should make us ask, would their case, their rights, have been different otherwise? 

Aviva Zornberg, writing on this moment, quotes the author Ralph Aldo Emerson, who in his essay on self-reliance talks of a moment of becoming.

She explains that before the moment of becoming, when a person embodies themselves and accepts their rights and place in the world ‘the individual is, in a sense, uncreated. Emerson calls this state ‘conformity’. Descarte’s description of existence, “I think therefore I am, becomes in Emerson’s thought the continuing challenge to say “I am”:

A person has to, somehow, find a way to step into the posture of ‘I am’, ‘I exist’ without the extraneous details that prevent them asserting themselves as fully valid with no-preconditions. 

Quoting midrash, she notes the rabbinic dictum, spoken here in aramaic but perhaps also familiar to some of you in the hebrew as it also appears in pirke avot בַּאֲתַר דְּלֵית גְּבַר — תַּמָּן הֱוֵי גְּבַר in a place where there is no man there, be a man. In other words, fill the space. For the daughters of Zelophchad the text roots the validity of their claim as being about their essential rights, that when there is nobody else to inherit then it’s their task to become that inheritor. Playing on the word gever, man, Zornberg links it to gevurah, might or self assertion. That becoming, fully being is understanding the inalienable right to inhabit yourself and understand and assert your value. 

That value isn’t conditional on whether or not your father was worthy of redemption, or on how skilled and talented, how much of a national asset you are. The most challenging experiences are ones that fundamentally undermine someone’s ability to assert their own absolute value- that value is not conditional. There’s no such thing as a perfect person, and even more so a perfect victim. But a human is still worthy of fair and proper treatment, even when they are humanly flawed. 

There is one overlapping detail between the two stories shared today- Mo Farah’s and the daughters of Zelophchad and that’s the role of a person in leadership who responds to their story. For Mo Farah it was Alan Watkinson, his PE teacher who helped him put together the necessary paperwork to gain asylum, and for the daughters of Zelophchad it was Moses who interceded on their behalf.

When Moses replies to the daughters he says their case is just, he does not qualify that, he does not pick up on their language, instead he speaks in absolute terms. I wonder if their roles help us identify our task here- to be able to understand when it is within our power to help someone else reach that point of ‘I am’, and to support those whose story is less easy to tell and doesn't yet have the grand ending of the story of an Olympic hero- but who knows where people can go when someone helps them find their place in the world. 



Tue, 9 August 2022 12 Av 5782