‘And a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph’

by Rabbi Nathan Weiner, Congregation Beth Tikvah

RABBI NATHAN WEINER Congregation Beth Tikvah

Parashat Shemot

Ex. 1:1-6:1

  • On Jan. 7, a Jewish couple from Rockville, MD, found a note on their car from white supremacists, angry that the couple supports the Black Lives Matter movement. On the note was the word “Jude,” and a yellow Jewish star reminiscent of the one Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.
  • A swastika was painted on a sign at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish institute of Religion, in Cincinnati, OH on Jan. 3. HUC is the oldest Jewish institution of higher learning in America, dating back to 1875. It is the Reform movement’s seminary.
  • As this was being written, Neo-Nazis were organizing a march and rally in Whitefish, Montana on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in an attempt to stoke fears in the Jewish community there. Personal information on local Jewish residents has been distributed, and the organizers are calling on white supremacist groups from all over the world to join them. They have also asked a Hamas representative to come and speak at their rally.
  • Soon after the presidential election, an alt-right group gathered in Washington, DC. Video surfaced of participants giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Trump.”
  • On Dec. 30, an Arizona family found the large, home-made Chanukah menorah they made for their front lawn twisted into a swastika by vandals.

The anti-Semitic events listed above are only a small sampling of the increasingly visible, pernicious, and common threats against Jews that have occurred since November in America. There are also racists, homophobes, and Islamophobes who have become increasingly emboldened to openly spread hate and violence.

This is not my America. This is not who we are. And we must not let fear rule us, for as Torah teaches, that can have disastrous consequences, very quickly.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, we learn of the perils of irrational fear towards the other. Exodus chapter 1, verses 8-11 read: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he (the king) said to his people: ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built store-cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Ramses.”

Rashi reminds us that the sages Rav and Shmuel disagreed about this new king. One said that the new king was in fact a different person, while the other said that it was the same king, but that he issued new edicts. Either way, reexamine the verses above. Pharaoh’s lack of knowledge of Joseph (and the subsequent absence of a desire to obtain knowledge of Joseph), ultimately led to 400 years of oppression for the Israelite nation. It looks like the process was: Not knowing leading to fear, fear leading to paranoia, paranoia leading to a call for ‘law and order,’ a call to law and order leading to unsupported claims about the nature of the misunderstood other, and unsupported claims leading to outright oppression. All in the span of four verses of Torah. And the rest of the Exodus saga is, as they say, history.

The new king’s ascension to the top office in the land did not in any way indicate a change in the very nature of that land. Egypt was still the same Egypt. The Egyptians did not need to let the fears and insecurities of their new leader influence them to change their thinking, their priorities, and their ideals, such that the worst of the human condition was put on display. Several times in the book of Genesis, Egypt had in fact welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of the children of Israel so that they could flee famine. THIS was the ideal Egypt. In one generation, IN ONE VERSE OF TORAH, Egypt became a nation that would enslave the Israelites for 400 years, due to the unwarranted fears of its new leader.

How do we protect against allowing fear, our own and that of others to dominate our decision-making? How do we fight anti-Semitism against us while simultaneously resisting our own inclinations to stereotype others? As our nation celebrated diversity on Martin Luther King weekend, let us remember Dr. King’s sage words, when he said: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Let us all do the work of communicating as we work to truly know the other.

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