Shabbat Shemot: Do you Know your Name?

What makes you cry out?

Why has much of the Jewish educational establishment been so concerned about the possibility of Jews joining in the U.S. celebration of Christmas? There are some good reasons. 

For many generations of Jewish exile, Christmas was a mortally dangerous time. Hatred of Jews was used throughout medieval Europe as a way of redirecting peasant frustration from exploitation by lords and church toward an easier, unifying condemnation of the people who “killed Jesus”. No one whose Jewish identity carries the epigenetic trauma marker of Christian-inspired crusades and pogroms can be expected to react with equanimity and understanding when informed that the Portland Public School board has declared Christmas trees to be neutral holiday symbols.

Jewish educators and rabbis have often been cast in the role of disapproving gatekeepers, disapproving of any syncretism and distributing books with titles like “There is no such thing as a Hanukkah bush”. Parents can feel caught between wanting to respond to their children’s sense of being left out of a great big party to which only they have not been invited, and the sense that Jewish establishment that will disapprove of any social compromise a Jewish parent might feel they need to make – often remembering their own feelings as a child feeling left out.

Our ancestors are living in Egypt for 400 years by the time the book of Shemot, which we read this Shabbat, begins. It started well, under the protection of a regime that was shaped and ruled over by an Israelite. But in the famous line that augurs a sea change, there arose a king who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1.8). 

Suddenly the Jewish people, which had participated in Egyptian life thinking they were at home and equal, were targeted and set apart. Now they were not Egyptians, but Jews, and their situation deteriorated rapidly. 

We read in the Torah that HaShem appears to Moshe in the famous bush that was burning and was not consumed, and in the first meeting says 

רָאֹ֥הרָאִ֛יתִיאֶת־עֳנִ֥יעַמִּ֖יאֲשֶׁ֣רבְּמִצְרָ֑יִםוְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤םשָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙מִפְּנֵ֣ינֹֽגְשָׂ֔יוכִּ֥ייָדַ֖עְתִּיאֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו

I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their cry because of their taskmasters (Exodus 3.7)

The ancient midrashic musings upon this moment ask why it took so long. Why were the Israelites crushed by slavery for generation after generation? Why is it that now, finally, HaShem “marks” this suffering?

The answer is in the verse itself: the Israelites were crying out for relief. They gave voice to their misery – because they finally realized that they were insupportably miserable. They became aware of it.

The enforced exposure to Christmas is not comparable to slavery, of course not: except in one way. To feel the discomfort of it is to be aware of the fact that one is not Christian, that one is Jewish and that one’s identity is not recognized in the holiday onslaught.

It must be noted that for Jews, as a small minority of the population, Christmas is pretty overwhelming. The majority culture, here as well as elsewhere, presumes the public spaces to be theirs to decorate and to infuse with their holiday’s songs, food and visuals. Schools run Christmas plays, pageants and other required gatherings. Some Jews who have extreme doctrinal differences with Chabad nevertheless take great satisfaction from the giant in-your-face Hanukkah menorahs that group often erects alongside public Christmas trees.

There’s no cure for a child – or an adult – feeling left out, unless the child has so much richness in their life already that they can feel the discomfort of an identity being unrecognized. Children in Israel have no Christmas envy, because they have fully realized identity rituals such as Pesakh (Hanukkah is a minor holiday, celebrated, like Purim in Israel, mostly as a children’s thing).

Rabbis and educators aren’t gatekeepers, and they shouldn’t be put in that position. They don’t stand between a Jew and a Jew’s life, or conscience. Each of us decides, under the pressure of the majority community, what hurts and what doesn’t. Only those who become aware of it and cry out will be rescued from their oppression.

Kings who don’t know Joseph will come and go. The question that remains for us is, do we?

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