It was striking how the day that the new president took office corresponded to the start of the Torah Book of Shemot (Exodus). Not only is each indicative of a new chapter for American life and the Jewish people, but the Torah’s new chapter has a haunting start.
With the Book of Beresheet (Genesis) having concluded on a hopeful and comforting note, with Joseph and all Egypt welcoming his brethren with open arms, the next book opens with a frightening utterance that very quickly manifested as a shattering destruction of the life of comfort with which the first book closed. All of the benefits the people had derived from Joseph being number 2 in leadership of all Egypt dissipated after his death when “there arose a Pharaoh that did not know Joseph”. What resulted were changes that turned life in Egypt into servitude and torment and increasingly harsh measures including the decision to kill the baby boys.
Throughout the ages the metaphor of the Pharaoh that did not know Joseph has haunted our people and driven us, out of necessity, to find ways to survive the changing conditions. One truth that remains throughout our history of life in the Diaspora is that until the U.S.A became home to our people, as well as to immigrants of all backgrounds and cultures, there has never been a single nation in the world where we remained safe.
So it went in ancient Egypt; so it went in many prominent places we confidently called home in the 2000 years since Rome removed us from Israel in 70 CE.
The irony of 1492, etched in memory as the starting date for what would result in the creation of the United States, is that it was also the date that hundreds of years of Jewish life at home in Spain came officially to a close with the expulsion of the Jewish community.
Of course, in our own times, the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust having come out of a country where so many Jews felt themselves to be more German than Jewish continues to show that the Pharaoh that did not know Joseph can emerge at any time and any place.
One can wonder about the metaphor of that Pharaoh, now in our own country, in terms of its possible effect on the Jewish community. The new president, at least leading up to his first day in office, has been associated with a growing empowerment of people that are hostile to “others” i.e. those that are not like them, and that, according to ADL and Southern Poverty Law Center, incidences of intolerance, targeting and violence are on the increase.
Beyond the possible impact of the changing times on the Jewish people is the question of the changing times for the American people as a whole. What if you apply the metaphor of that Pharaoh in terms of a leader that did not know American history and its story of commitment to immigrants, diversity and most importantly rights for one and all?
In other words, it would be beneficial for American leadership and citizenry to learn the lessons of Torah in ways to apply them, outside the Jewish context, to the broader sense of understanding the impact of not valuing your history and its story of implementation of hard fought principles and values by which to live.
The Pharaoh that did not know Joseph imagined and conjured an enemy that did not exist and raised specters of danger that were unwarranted and would become canards applied throughout the ages in accusing those that were different of unfounded sinister intentions.
If these times continue to be fraught with increasing danger, the lessons of the past, and from our Torah, indicate that good wishes and hopes will not remove such danger. We must find the prophetic voice of justice within ourselves and join in responding to the wrongs, beginning with support of elected officials with wherewithal to minimize potential damage to American infrastructure and maximize opportunities to engage us all in creative response.
And, of course, this is another reminder that no one person or community can go it alone in addressing imbalances and wrongs in our society. So, keep tuned to any and all activity of Common Ground, our shared interfaith and nonprofit community for affecting change for the better in Solano County.