Why We March: A Drash on Exodus

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by Rabbi Heather Miller

Do you know what a people’s microphone is?
It is a kind of call and response organizers use in large crowds.  Will you indulge me?

Vayakom Melech Chadash– 
Say it with me:
Vayakom Melech Chadash
And arose a new Ruler!–
And arose a new Ruler!
Al Mitzrayim–
Al Mitzrayim
Over Egypt
Over Egypt
Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef– 
Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef
And he did not know Joseph.
And he did not know Joseph.

Thank you.

“And arose a new ruler, over Egypt, and he did not know Joseph.”

Ten words. Ten little words from this week’s Torah portion. And they are so powerful; signaling a great shift in the treatment of the Israelites in the Torah.

This is one of the most chilling verses in the Torah.

They suggest that a ruler over Egypt is not actually inherently bad for the Jews.  But who that leader is, and how much the leader knows the people makes all the difference.

“And arose a new ruler, over Egypt, and he did not know Joseph.”

This week’s Torah portion, the Torah portion that all Jews around the world and across our nation, are reading, the first in the book of Exodus, is called Shemot, which means “names,” and it begins with a list of the names of Jacob’s progeny who had flourished under Egyptian Rule in the book of Genesis.

Remember Joseph who had the technicolor dream coat was thrown in to a pit by his 11 other brothers and he became a great dream interpreter.  And, word spread that he was this great dream interpreter, and he went all the way up the ranks, from that deep pit, he rose to power, to predict for the Egyptian Pharaoh.  And he predicted for the Pharaoh that Egypt would have seven years of abundance and seven years of drought and he helped Pharaoh determine that he and all of Egypt should save during the seven years of abundance to survive for the seven years of drought.  He essentially saved Egypt and that Pharaoh knew it.  He showered Joseph with all kinds of honorifics and safety and security.  So much so that those brothers who had thrown Joseph into the pit were eventually welcomed into Egypt.  And there they flourished as well, not only they but all Israelites as well enjoyed safety and security under that Pharaoh.

That’s when Exodus begins:

א  וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה:  אֵתיַעֲקֹב, אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ.
1 Now these are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man came with his household:

ב  רְאוּבֵן שִׁמְעוֹן, לֵוִי וִיהוּדָה.
2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah;

ג  יִשָּׂשכָר זְבוּלֻן, וּבִנְיָמִן.
3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin;

ד  דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי, גָּד וְאָשֵׁר.
4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

ה  וַיְהִי, כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ יֹצְאֵי יֶרֶךְ-יַעֲקֹב–שִׁבְעִים נָפֶשׁ; וְיוֹסֵף,הָיָה בְמִצְרָיִם.
5 And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls; and Joseph was in Egypt already.

ו  וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל-אֶחָיו, וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא.
6 And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.

ז  וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד;וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.  {פ}
7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

But then:
Vayakom Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim
Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef
And arose a new ruler over Egypt and he did not know Joseph.

The text tells us that this new ruler and his new relationship would be different.  Foreshadowing what was to follow.  From those days, until today, we, Jews, have been largely subjected to the ruling authorities.  Who was in power mattered.  In every land we have lived in, save for maybe Israel post ’48, or the period of the ancient Israelite kings, our status, livelihood, and life itself has hung in the balance, at the whim of the ruling authority.

The same was true over 3,000 years ago– with the first Pharaoh, the one who knew Joseph by name and lifted the people, the Israelites, into abundance.  That Pharaoh was then followed by this new Pharaoh, who didn’t know the people, and who then oppressed the Israelites.

In these verses, the Torah hints that the key to peace and prosperity was that the old Pharaoh knew Joseph– he knew those who he was ruling over.

But the new Pharaoh did NOT know Joseph.  He did not know the history of how Joseph saved Egypt from famine.  He did not know the people or our customs, traditions, what we brought to the table– he did not know whom he was to lead– and thus, he was quite comfortable decreeing oppressive edicts and actions like enslaving the Israelites, and ordering their firstborn sons to be killed.

And that is a profound difference. Theologically, Jewish thinkers have affirmed that we are all connected.  We are known from within the womb by our creator.  And this knowing implies care.  Connection.  Love.

Strong’s Concordance defines the Hebrew term for knowing, “Yada,” as:
“A primitive root.  Used in a great variety of senses, figuratively, literally, euphemistically and [perhaps most interesting here] inferentially (including observation, care, recognition).”

The same way that the term works when you acknowledge on Facebook that you know someone and would like to friend them.  Knowing someone implies connection.

The Mishnah, from the year 200 CE, in the Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, reminds us that knowing someone and someone’s experience humanizes them.

Rabbi Hillel would say, “do not judge your fellow until you have stood in their shoes.” (2:4) In other words, we are not to erect walls of judgement or distance without really knowing someone.  The implication is that we are never to erect walls of judgement EVER– because if we did of course stand in someone else’s shoes.  If we saw their life through their perspective, and understood their behavior intrinsically, there would be no way to look at them with disfavor if we knew them.  It is through knowing one another that we disarm our human impulses to judge, demean and degrade.  Clearly this new Pharaoh did not know the Israelites as he easily ordered harsh decrees against them.

He must have missed the memo that so many Jewish leaders are taught–a piece of wisdom originating in the Talmud (Berachot 28b)– in some sanctuaries it is inscribed over the ark– “Da lifnei mi atah omed” “Know before whom you stand.”

To be legitimated as leaders, we must know our constituents– our congregants– our community members.  I think Rabbi Lisa and Cantor Juval would agree with me that as clergy, we are privileged to know so many of you on such a profound and deep level– your fears, your joys, your triumphs and perils and your deepest yearnings.  It is an honor to be let into your lives in this way.  We know you.  And we love you.

But the new Pharaoh did not know Joseph, or the Israelites.  He must have missed the memo that one my colleagues a Black Christian leader, Rev. Lewis Logan, shared with our social justice group– he said he wants each of us rabbis to have at least three pastors in our speed dial that we can call at anytime, and he himself has at least three rabbis on speed dial that he can call anytime.  That is the kind of relationship building, knowing one another, and trust building that weaves together the fabric of society.

After all, it was Mr. Rogers who encouraged us to get to know the people in our neighborhood.

As members of this congregational community, we know that we can apply these principles to our neighbors.  Wasn’t it a joy to get to know members of our community last spring when we hosted the first ever BCC Rainbow Bazaar here?  Or whenever people join us for services isn’t it great to get to know newcomers? We build connection and community through getting to know people– that’s why we have Oneg! Knowing people is means by which we weave together community.

I have been thinking about this since I recently introduced myself to Aviv Tuchman whose law firm is just right next door here.  In our 5 years in this new building, I had never met  him.  Only three months ago did I visit Country Villa assisted living home on the corner.  Last year, I met with those at B’nai David Synagogue and welcomed the first woman religious leader, Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn, to the neighborhood. Connection, connection, connection.

Beyond reaching out around this neighborhood, we can cross the freeways or even just La Brea and get to know the members of the community. When we learn each other’s customs and traditions, and histories, we build connection and communal harmony; peace.

This idea was the basis for the book by former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director, Torie Osborn.  The main thrust of her book, Coming Home To America, was encouraging those of us in the LGBT community to come out– to share our stories with those around us, including those with social power.  Doing so, she argued, would be a source of our collective liberation.

And right she was– the more we each came out, the more people knew us, and got to know our personal stories, they were put in touch with our humanity, and they began to recognize the importance of affording us human dignity.

Now, the onus shouldn’t be on the misunderstood group to reach out to those in power to put them in touch with our humanity.  But, it can be a tactic that works and leads to our collective liberation in not all but many spaces– it largely worked for marriage equality.  Our openness and sharing and allowing those in power to get to know us shifted the tide of discrimination.  And we have a ways to go, but our initial coming out proved the theory– getting to know those around us, allowing others to get to know us by sharing our true selves, builds community, and ultimately security.

All the more so, leaders, especially U.S. presidents, need to really REALLY get to know various segments of America.  What a difference it makes when presidents know not only the Jewish community, but the various Jewish communities, when the president knows not only the LGBT community, but various LGB and T communities, etc.

Our work as citizens has to therefore be to stand up and speak up and let our elected officials and those who might soon become elected officials know us– form real relationships with another.  So that when we or they assume leadership, it will really be by the people for the people and of the people, as the US Constitution envisioned.  We guard against the trap into which the second pharaoh fell– not knowing the people he led, led him to inflict real harm.  He wasn’t in touch with their humanity, and so he could disregard it.

Some of you tomorrow are going to try to let President Trump know who you are– what you care about– what you stand for.  You will let him know how vital certain programs and organizations are and what is important to you.  You will let him know who you are, and I suspect over the next four years and beyond we will continue letting the president know who we are, what we stand for, what our values are.

And, then, I pray, that he will da lifnei mi atah omeid— he will know before whom he stands– may God help him know every segment of this society, and make choices based on that love-inspired knowing- to further everyone’s interests.

Amen!

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