Shabbat Shemot: A New King Arose Who Did Not Know Joseph

Now there arose a new king who did not know Joseph (Ex.1.8)These words from the opening of the Book Shemot, Exodus, rise up, an uncanny echo reverberating through history, mocking those of us who think that the Torah is tamed and not so up to date.

These are the words that greet us on this Shabbat; this is our parashat hashavua. Like our ancestors, we know not what awaits us. Like our ancestors, we know that lessons can be learned through our history, and that justice is worked out day by day.

On Friday we will be in shul, or at work, at a rally, at more than one of these, or wherever else we must be. Wherever we are, let us be together – with each other as we can be in touch, and with all those who seek justice and show up for justice, here and everywhere. 

Tomorrow we will introduce a new prayer minhag, a Tahanun to be recited each day which is not a holy day.

On Shabbat we will rest, and connect with each other and the sources of our strength. Seek out your Jewish community whenever you can on this Shabbat; we are stronger when we face the uncertainty of the unknown together.

And on Sunday we will continue our path together, taking one step at a time, as carefully and as compassionately as we can.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Shemot: A World Full of Suffering

We begin reading the Book of Exodus (Shemot, “Names”, in Hebrew) in the Torah this week; in the opening scenes, our ancestors find ourselves in a developing nightmare – and, unlike the dreams of Genesis, we can’t just wake up from it. 

At first, all seemed well in our new homes in Egypt. But within the bloom of our success were found the seeds of trouble.

  וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.

The children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

  וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.

  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ:  הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ.

And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us;

  הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ:  פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.

come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ (Exodus 1.7-10)

For generations, Jewish commentaries have focused upon verse 8: “a king who knew not Joseph” to explain what happened; the lack of memory not only of those in authority, but of our neighbors as well, obliterated the good will we used to know, and allowed evil to begin to grow. Thus we understood the ensuing enslavement of our people to be a result of narrow perspectives, short memories, and the age-old fear of “not enough to go around”. But we are still left with a troubling question: why is it that the new king assumes that there will be trouble? and why does he respond to his fear with oppression? 

“Why?” is not always a question so easily answered. But unless we ask it, and search for truth in the answers we find, the evil we face will not be faced down.

Why are French satirists murdered? why Jewish hostages? why Syrian refugees? 

What makes a man or woman capable of killing an innocent stranger? 

What madness is this, in this world of ours?

The Jewish people unfortunately developed a real expertise in the mystery of cruelty and evil. During the terrible years of Exile we faced mystifying murder again and again, and easy, facile, untrue answers such as “we must have done something to deserve it” satisfied only those who need any answer rather than face a terrifying mystery. 

The Jewish mystics developed a much more troubling answer. Who knows if it is true? but it has a ring of truth to it. It is taught in kabbalah that our world is made up of ten sefirot, ten characteristics or attributes, that echo through all we are and do; among them is that of hesed, loving kindness, and gevurah, strict judgment. 

Gevurah, the attribute of strict judgment, is the source of our courage and our ability to find strength to fight evil. But it is also taught that evil itself comes into the world through this attribute, when it is mistakenly – unjustly, cruelly – applied. Judgment without mercy, judgment without thought for the individual situation – this kind of judgment opens the door to evil in the world.

This teaching offers us a way to inquire after the evil in our world. What opened the door to it? what unjust judgment was passed, and when? For Jews, to inquire is to look into Torah and consider the challenges its teachings offer us. One of those is the doctrine that sin will reverberate for three, and even four, generations, before the pain of the evil created by that sin abates.

Then there is evil that seems to defy even this doctrine; inexplicable suffering, cutting innocent lives short, leaving us who are left to witness such evil wondering if the universe is, perhaps, after all, a cold, meaningless void.

To this the mystics offer a teaching that is a mix of despair and hope. We balance our lives and our relationships between different attributes, sometimes more kindness, sometimes more judgment, sometimes more wisdom, sometimes more endurance. Some of us tend more toward one characteristic or another, and that is our own private struggle for a lifetime; in the next lifetime, that of our offspring and students, that tendency will become part of their lives, and they will balance it in their own way. 

There is no answer to the why of such a personal tendency. There is another teaching without a why, a teaching that our universe is also a lifetime, that also tends toward one attribute or another. The universe before ours expressed one or another of the attributes above all the rest, and ours does as well.

Unfortunately, it is taught, our universe was born into Gevurah, and the doorway that lets evil in cannot be barred. We see evidence of inexplicable callousness, cruelty, and other forms of evil every day.

It will take all the kindness of which we are capable to meet this evil, and hope to balance it, sometimes, and to do what we can to push our world toward the next universe – whose name is Tiferet, Compassion. So on a day when you don’t understand why there is such evil in the world, know that your answer can only be this: to be even more kind, randomly, hopefully, stubbornly faithful to the truth that even if the universe is a void, it doesn’t matter. We have to help each other create meaning for our lives anyway. 

Shabbat Shemot: can you feel your own galut?

Our parashat hashavua (“parashah of the week”) finds us far from home and ancestral memory; we are in Egypt, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But “there arose a king who did not know Joseph” (still a Jewish way to say “things are going to get worse now”), and our comfortable, protected status as guests of the crown ended. In a shockingly short time, we were enslaved, and the Egyptians who had been our neighbors became our willing persecutors. If this sounds familiar, it is because this story has happened to us more than once, most recently in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

The fall from prosperity into slavery and persecution begins very early in the book Shemot (Exodus), within ten verses of the beginning of chapter 1. Late in chapter 2, in the middle of our parashah, just at the beginning of the reading for the second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned by reason of the bondage. (Shemot, “Exodus”, 2:23)

Why, the commentators ask, is it written only here that the Israelites cried out because of their suffering? What took them so long? One early modern commentator offers:

“Until this point, the Children of Israel were so deeply sunk in their galut that they could not even sense it. But now, when the first budding of their redemption began to emerge, they could begin to feel the depth of their suffering.”  (Hiddushei ha-Rim, “Innovative Interpretations by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Rothenberg, 1789-1866).

According to Jewish tradition, G-d responded as soon as the Israelites cried out for relief. Why not earlier? we might ask in outrage: is this not a form of blaming the victim? I should have to scream before someone helps me?

No: rather, one has to realize that one is suffering before one becomes ready to accept the help that was already there, and available. When you are immersed in suffering, you do not believe in the reality of escape. Perhaps your thinking is that you do not deserve it, or that it’s not so bad, or that it’s too embarrassing to admit.

Galut, “exile”, is most painfully exile from oneself, and from G-d. The worst kind of suffering is that from which we do not believe there is relief. And the most important blessing we can be to each other is to do what Jews have always done when confronted with exile of any kind: stay together, help each other, and remind each other that it is when we can see and react to our galut that we begin to be able to heal it.

What suffering might you become aware of? what relief is already nearby, if you are ready to admit your pain? Go ahead; reach out for it, and in so doing may you realize your own strength to help others toward it as they help you. As we recited according to the minhag (custom) for finishing Bereshit last week and and getting ready to read the next book of our Torah: hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen each other.”