O, once again, what a week it has been in the United States of America. I feel so very fortunate to be part of a tradition much older and wiser than the 240-odd years of this nation’s development since its birth. Jews have lived under many forms of government and seen many, many examples of the kind of leadership, conflict and oppression that we are witnessing today. Our people’s teachings offer us a welcome perspective which is larger, longer, and deeper, and thus we have more learning to draw on, and less excuse to be left feeling completely overwhelmed and confused. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts in on Twitter, #We’veSeenThisBefore.
For Jews and the people who love them and live with them, staying grounded in our Jewish identity and its guidance offers us a way to stay grounded when all around us it seems that the center cannot hold, and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Judaism comes at the world, and our place in it, from a very different perspective, for example asking not “what are my rights?” in any moment but “what are my obligations?” It’s a helpful way to shed new light on difficult questions. We cannot fight gravity, but there is always, always something that we can do. There is always a mitzvah in the moment.
This Shabbat, our parashat hashavua (parshah of the week) offers us a way to relate to the events of this week, to break them down and parse them for a handle by which we might know what we might choose to do in response. Torah relates this week the courage of one individual. A single person finds the inner strength to step forward and challenge the bullying of a high and powerful government official.
VaYigash, the first word of the parashah, means “he drew near.” The context: the Vizier of Egypt is threatening, bullying, persecuting a group of foreigners who have come to plead for food to help them survive a famine back home. They are powerless and terrified before the ruler of the land, who blusters and threatens to throw them all in jail or have them killed. That group of foreigners are our ancestors, the sons of the Patriarch Jacob, and they are all looking at each other in fear and wondering what to do.
At that very moment, one of them, Judah, takes a step forward, and “draws near” to the ruler. Our commentaries point out that this is not just a physical move; what Judah does is to find the strength, somehow, to speak to the terrifying bully in words that actually touch him. He does not denounce him, though the ruler deserves it; he speaks as a human being, and he evokes the human fears of the moment.
We experience ways in which we may not be ready to publicly denounce someone who acts to oppress another human being, but we may be able to act as an ally nevertheless by speaking quietly as one human being to another. One example would be in the case of hearing another person tell a racist joke. One may not feel able to draw upon our tradition’s prophetic righteous indignation to declare that the joke teller is going straight to hell – but we can say “ouch” or “not with me” or words to that effect, and walk away from the group.
There is one step we can take – and, thank G*d, as a community we will usually find someone willing to take it with us. Sometimes it may bring us closer to the evil we are trying to challenge; sometimes it might only bring us closer to ourselves and our own hearts – but that is just as important. As it has been said, we may not be able to change the world on any given day, but we can work to make sure that the worst of the world does not change us. We are not helpless; there is always some small step we can take.