Photo Credit: US Coast Guard
Migrants on a boat

About ten years ago, as part of my clinical training, I worked as a psychotherapist for Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. The mission of the agency, which has since closed due to lack of funding, was to provide services and support for migrants who had survived torture in their native countries. The agency’s clients’ stories of survival were at once heartbreaking and inspiring, each one with a unique experience that forced her or him to escape home seeking a safer life.

In additional to the extreme poverty, unemployment (often due to laws prohibiting asylum seekers from working), housing instability, lack of access to basic medical care, and loss of community, many of these individuals displayed significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They had frequent nightmares, inconsistent sleep, difficulty trusting others, and avoided government officials (even those officials who were tasked to help them). These realities were painful but not surprising.


What was very surprising for me, however, was that when asked about the events that contribute to their PTSD, a significant proportion of the clients did not identify their experience of torture in their native countries as the content of their nightmares, even though it was that torture that forced them to leave. Instead, many recounted the harrowing journey through the Central American and Mexican wilderness as the trauma that was seared into their minds. How does one cope with watching fellow migrants die from thirst or hunger, other migrants drown in water crossings, women being sexually assaulted, and frequent betrayal from guides that led to the death of multiple group members?

I have been thinking a lot in the past few weeks about these clients with the increased media coverage of the Haitian migrants who have reached the U.S. border in Texas. Of course, good people can differ regarding the political question of how to best create and enforce immigration policy that balances the complexities of the issues. But whatever the politics, it is worth giving at least some time to consider the Torah and Chazal’s lessons to understand and internalize the suffering of those who leave their native homes in search of a better life.

One does not need a deep understanding of Jewish history to know that exile or forced evacuation from one’s home is regarded as a particularly difficult type of suffering. Indeed, as punishment for murdering his brother, Kayin’s punishment was that “You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” One of Abraham’s greatest tests of faith was leaving his home and journeying toward the Land of Israel. According to the Midrash, the commandment to dwell in the sukkah after Yom Kippur is to experience the suffering of exile and provide a final cleansing of our sins.

Chazal’s sensitivity to the challenges of migration, even when done by choice, has implications in halacha as well. The Mishna in Ketubot (110a) provides guidelines regarding whether and when a husband may compel his wife to move to another region or town. The end of the Mishna presents a disagreement among the Tannaim regarding how to balance moving locations and changes in quality of life:

One may remove his wife from a noxious residence to a pleasant residence, even if it is in another land. However, one may not compel his wife to move from a pleasant residence to a noxious residence.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: One may also not remove her from a noxious residence to a pleasant residence, because a pleasant residence tests the individual.

In other words, in the view of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, a husband may not compel his wife to move to another home, even if the quality of life in the second home is objectively better, because the move can “test the individual.” Rashi explains that this phrase means that moving to a new place can lead to physical illness and harm, and as such, the wife cannot be compelled to put herself at risk.

Elsewhere in Ketubot (28a), in the course of a discussion regarding the division of property between divorcing spouses, the question of forced evacuation from one’s home also comes up. In that particular case, the central issue in the Gemara’s deliberation is, on average, for whom is the stress of migration more difficult, the husband or the wife. But the assumption of the Gemara is that the process of moving itself is stressful for both parties.

Put into contemporary terms, we might say that a person moving to a new land may experience what is known as immigration stress. Medical and psychological studies have consistently shown over decades of research that migrants, especially those whose post-migration circumstances are characterized by poverty and instability, are at greater risk for a wide range of physical illnesses and mental health difficulties, such as depression, PTSD, and other forms of severe mental illness.

This is especially true for migrants who experience extended traumatic circumstances during their journey. It is hard to conceive of the desperation it would take for a mother with small children to decide to make the dangerous trip, confronted by danger for herself and her child at every step of the way. And what must life be like for these young men whose prospects in their home country are so bleak that they risk their lives to travel thousands of miles for a possibility of freedom?

In some ways, the plight of the exiled is regarded as more painful than those who are killed. As the prophet Yirmiyahu wrote (22:10):

Do not weep for the dead, and do not lament for him; Weep rather for him who is leaving, for he shall never come back to see the land of his birth!

The Rabbis learn from the first part of this verse that we should not mourn excessively for the deceased. Additionally, the Navi is telling us that we may and should continue to weep for those who are exiled, for their suffering is ongoing.

Unfortunately, in the world that we live in there is no shortage of suffering, and each year millions of people leave their homes because life in their native land has become too dangerous or unbearable. The reality is that we cannot provide refuge for all of those in need. But what we certainly can do is learn from the wisdom of our Sages to increase our compassion for the vulnerable, and pray for a day when all the nations of world can live in safety and prosperity.


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Ethan Eisen received semicha from RIETS, and a PhD in clinical psychology from GWU. He authored the recently published book focusing on Torah and psychology, "Talmud on the Mind” (Kodesh Press).