A Response to the Events of January 6, 2021
January 9, 2021
“And there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Yosef
And he 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.”
This is how the Book of Exodus opens. The story of father Abraham and his family that preoccupied so much of the Book of Genesis, morphs into the story of the Jewish people that will be the focus of Exodus, the rest of the bible and the next 4000 years of Jewish history.
It begins with the story of an all powerful leader consumed with jealousy and hatred. And while he focuses that jealousy and hatred on one people, the Jews, it will ultimately come to consume him and his own Egyptian nation and bring death and destruction on himself and on his people.
Starting this Shabbat and continuing over the next few weeks we will read the stories of Exodus – of this king’s hatreds and jealousies, of his desire to rule at all costs. A desire that leads to the enslavement of the Jewish people that he irrationally preceives to be a threat to his rule. But these hatreds and jealousies will also lead to the plagues brought by God, the rise of Moses and the liberation of an entire people from slavery to freedom.
You are, no doubt, familiar with the climactic defeat of Pharaoh. It has been elevated from the pages of the Bible and placed as part of our daily liturgy – we sing it every morning — we did so today of a sea that split, a triumphant people liberated and Pharoah and his troops drowned and destroyed.
That is how it ends, the kingship of Pharaoh, rooted from the beginning in anger, division and conspiracy mongering, comes to an end with a violent mob drowned in the sea at the instigation of a defeated leader trying to hang onto power…
Oh, I apologize – that last paragraph was actually a very slight variation from the words Peter Baker wrote in this past Thursday’s New York Times – of course he was not commenting on this week’s torah portion – he was commenting on the horrifying events that took place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
“So this is how it ends,” wrote Baker, “The presidency of Donald John Trump, rooted from the beginning in anger, division and conspiracy mongering, comes to a close with a violent mob storming the Capitol at the instigation of a defeated leader trying to hang onto power as if America were just another authoritarian nation.”
My friends, the lesson of this week’s torah reading and the lesson of what we witnessed this past week before our very eyes – is that anger, division and conspiracy theories will always and inevitably lead to violence and defeat.
We witnessed the unimaginable this past week: “a rampage through the citadel of American democracy. Police officers brandishing guns in an armed standoff to defend the House chamber. Tear gas deployed in the Rotunda. Lawmakers in hiding. Extremists standing in the vice-president’s spot on the Senate dais and sitting at the desk of the speaker of the House.”
Had we studied our bible more carefully — we would have known that it would end this way. It always ends this way.
I wish we had more time to study today’s Torah reading – as it is so incredibly instructive.
It begins in forgetfulness. “There arose a king who knew not Yosef…” A new king who was either untutored or uncaring about history. What need had he of history? His wants and his needs were the beginning and the end of the new kingdom he would establish.
But this new Pharaoh was clever, he understood that though he was indeed all powerful — he still needed the consent, the support of his people. Here is the commentary of Ramban, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides who was born in Girona in 1194 – “let us deal shrewdly with them…” Pharoah’s first appeal is to his people, he understands that he requires the support of the constituency. He will allow his people to do the worst, says the Ramban, and he will remain aloof, as if he is a third party to the process when he himself had set it into motion. The mob, writes the Ramban, will take to the streets and pharoah will pretend to stand with the system when it is the system he intends on destroying. It is not that he desires to destroy those he perceives as his enemy, he is reluctantly doing the will of his people while all the time manipulating those people to do his will.
One has to ask him/herself – was the Ramban explicating today’s torah portion – or his own day? Was he seeking to give us insight and understanding into the world of Egypt in 1200 BCE or was he giving us insight into the world of Girona circa 1200 CE – or was he in fact writing the commentary for this week’s New York Times?
Oh, if we only had more time to study his words – how could he have known what we would be experiencing 800 years later? How could we have not known? The Bible tried to warn us. History tried to warn us. The Ramban tried to warn us.
What is one of the most often repeated phrases in the entire Torah? What is one of the most often repeated phrases in all of Jewish ritual? Zecher L’Yetziat Mitzrayim – remembering the Exodus from Egypt. It is what much of the Torah is about – remembering the Exodus from Egypt. But we keep forgetting. It is part of our daily liturgy, it is included in our kiddush for shabbat and holidays: remember the exodus from Egypt. The 10 commandments instruct us to keep the sabbath day and make it holy — why? Zecher L’Yetziat Mitzrayim – to remember the Exodus from Egypt.
The book of Exodus opens with a terrible moment of forgetfulness – “And there arose a king, who knew not Yosef…” contrasted with a Judaism that is grounded in a command to remember: Remember the exodus from Egypt – remember where forgetfulness will lead you, remember where fear and anger inevitably leads.
Judaism is at its core an active response to forgetfulness – an echo of Pharaoh’s forgetfulness which allows terrible things to happen. “Ritual is the maintenance of memory through repetitive acts,” says Professor Moshe Halbertal.
Let’s pause for a moment to digest that statement — ritual is the maintenance of memory through repetitive acts. Pharaoh’s greatest failure was his forgetfulness. Judaism is built on memory – so it creates ritual.
Ritual demands that we do something a particular way, at a particular time – again and again. I put on my tefillin – every day, I thank God for my food – every time I eat, I observe Shabbat every week – it is precisely this repetition that drives the kids crazy when they are first introduced to Judaism. Ben preparing for his Bar Mitzvah learns his portion line by line – he chants it over and over and over again. He thinks to himself – Ben you must have thought to yourself – again? Why must I learn it again and again? And the answer was in the events of this past week – the answer was in the scene of insurrectionists storming the sacred precincts of our democracy goaded on by our president – a man who embodies and embraces the forgetfulness of history. My dear Ben – you fear we made you repeat these lines too much – I fear we did not make you repeat them enough. How quickly we forget the lessons of our bible, how quickly we forget the lessons of our history. “And there arose a king who knew not Yosef” – say it again! “And there arose a king who knew not Yosef.” Again!
“Remember what happened on January 6, 2021 – when they trampled and desecrated the halls of congress,” – again – “Remember what happened on January 6, 2021 – when they trampled and desecrated the halls of congress,” The only hope we have for the future is to remember, memory is the antidote to forgetfulness.
So, if Pharoah is the villain in our story – who is the hero? Careful, it is a trick question – don’t answer too quickly. You were going to say Moses — no? I will grant you he plays a pretty central role in the Bible and in our history. There is no doubt that when the academy awards are handed out — he will be front and center.
But I would like to nominate for best actor in a leading role – three people from today’s reading — all of them women: Shifra, Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter.
Shifra and Puah were the two midwives who ignored Pharoah’s command to drown all Jewish males in the sea. Had it not been for them – we would have been doomed. Bat Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s daughter, was the one who plucked baby Moses from the Nile and raised him in the palace – had it not been for her we would have been doomed.
These three are the true heroes of the Exodus story – -and what they all have in common is that they defied Pharaoh’s decree, they ignored his command. They were moved by their own conscience rather than the immoral command of their leader. Pharaoh was motivated by hatred and his desire to divide — and it led to his downfall and destruction. Shifra, Puah and Bat Pharaoh were motivated by love and compassion – and it led to salvation and triumph and the fulfillment of life and liberty.
The mother and the midwives – how many times would the women save us men throughout history? Pharaoh’s daughter – betrays him. The tyrant is done in by his own family! A simple act of compassion will lead to the downfall of the mightiest man on earth. The care for the infant – this primal concern of a mother – to care for the helpless – that compassion and love – is the salvation of the world.
It all begins with an act of mercy. Bat Pharaoh reclaims humanity from the inhumanity of her father. She is the triumph of love over hate.
Were the events of this past week an inflection point in modern history? We can certainly hope so. We have seen where the path we are on leads. It leads to death, destruction and defeat. Can we restore and rebuild? We can pray – we can certainly pray that it will be our future. But it will only be our future – if we remember.
We are angry and we are frustrated. We demand justice – and justice should be done. But if we merely replace their hatred with ours, their fears with our fears, their outrage with our outrage – we will once again embark on a path of death and destruction – only the victims and the causes will be different.
It is my hope and prayer — that the future of this great country — will not be written by the angry faces of those who stormed the capital, nor by leaders who cynically manipulate with lies and hate – leaders who raise their arm in defiant support of the mob; no it is my hope and prayer that we will be led by wise leaders and kind teachers; by the face of love and compassion -by the the vision upon which this great land was founded: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.