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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 21 Tevet 5776, 2 January 2016
And a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef. Simple and to the point. We are all familiar with the explanation that says that he MADE himself “not know Yosef,” that he closed his mind to what Yosef had done.
Yet there is another option. He really did not know who Yosef was. Think about it. In today’s world of instant communication and 24/7 access to others, a frighteningly large percentage of youngsters do not know who Yitzhak Rabin was, and he was killed only 20 years ago.
Ah, you say, but things were different then. The people knew or at least Pharaoh knew what Yosef had done for his predecessors on the throne, not only saving the country from famine but also buying up the whole country and its population as slaves to Pharaoh. He could not have NOT known that!
We don’t know. It is possible he knew, or did not know. But what is most probable is that not only Pharaoh but the populace in general viewed the Israelites with great suspicion. If Pharaoh was able to swing the people so easily to treat the Israelites as third-class non-citizens, such feelings must have existed among the Egyptian population, too.
This is amply reflected in Europe of today. Governments, like Sweden, come out with statements about Israel that are as delusional as Pharaoh’s not knowing Yosef, yet the people accept the statements and act on them, because that’s what they feel, too. Not all of them, of course, but enough – too many – of them. History does repeat itself. People simply do not wish to learn from it.
Parshat Shemot 2016
משנה מקום משנה מזל Change your locale and you change your luck, goes the Hebrew proverb. Your health is not good, change your name. Add Chaim to it. A new name, a new life. This week we changed books, from Bereshit (Genesis) to Shemot (Exodus) – the real translation is “names”. And what a transition it was. And not only in terms of locale and leading characters.
In all the momentous events that we read about in Bereshit, from creation through the death of Yaacov, one of the hallmarks of the book is strife within the family. As Rabbi Ari Kahn so correctly points out, from Cain’s petulant response, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ to the suspicion and fear that Yaacov’s children harbor towards Yosef, there is more enmity and backstabbing per chapter than in any other of the books. Think about it: after Cain and Abel, we have Avraham vs. Ishmael and vs. Yitzhak, Yitzhak vs. Yaacov and Esau, Yaacov vs. Esau, Yaacov vs. Lavan, ten of Yaacov’s sons vs. Yosef. And these are only the prominent cases.
And now we enter Shemot. What’s the first story we read? Two midwives endanger their lives to save the newborn Israelite male children. The second story tells of a devoted sister making sure that nothing bad happens to her little brother.
Not much later, Moshe goes out to his brethren and saves one from an Egyptian. Who is he? It’s not important. He’s a brother. As in Neil Diamond’s song of the 1960s, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Moshe then flees to Midian where he helps out seven damsels in distress – also strangers to him. It’s a kind of “pay it forward” – do a random good deed and the recipient has only to perform another random good deed, for someone else.
Of course this is not a feel-good book we’re getting into. It’s full of anger and pride (Pharaoh on both counts), of suffering, hope and despair (the Israelites). It is chock full of serious lapses of belief on the part of the Israelites, in Egypt and especially from the moment they step out of Egypt, all the way up to the sin of the golden calf.
But the overriding message is one of unity, of togetherness. They’re suffering, but they are suffering together. They are rejoicing, together. They are being punished together and rewarded together. This togetherness will be reflected most clearly at the end of Shemot, in the chapters devoted to building the Mishkan, the tabernacle.
Another way of looking at the beginning of Shemot is to observe which people are actually named and which are not. Shemot, names, refers to the names of Yaacov’s twelve children, as a transitory paragraph from Bereshit to Exodus. As noted, two midwives save the Israelite babies and we are told their names – Shifra and Puah. Then we enter the story of Moshe and – surprise – no names are given. And a man of the tribe of Levi went and took a woman of the tribe of Levi. And she had a son. And this woman’s daughter (unnamed) hid and watched as her three-month old brother floated in a basket on the Nile.
And Moshe went out and killed an Egyptian who was beating up on a Hebrew man (unnamed). And the next day he saw two Hebrews (unnamed) fighting. At the well in Midian, where Moshe takes refuge, he is simply an Egyptian man, unnamed.
And so it goes. Names are mentioned for the people who do momentous things, no matter what their background. In a chapter of genealogy, we finally learn that the names of Moshe’s parents are Amram and Yocheved. What’s important is not who – but what.
The message, it would seem, is that anyone can stand and work for the greater good or even for the benefit of one other individual. We award two points when some celebrity donates money or time to specific causes and we are impressed (or not) that these people, who have such important lives, can take the time to devote to poor children in Rwanda or the education of the next generation of American children. But they are not alone.
The news reports show that it is more often the anonymous people who take action when it is necessary to protect others, to shield those in danger. We have seen it in some of the attacks on our streets, we have seen it in the army when a soldier gives his life to protect his buddies, we see it during multi-victim attacks around the world.
It was in this spirit that Israel turned from an idea to a reality and then flourished. Perhaps it’s a case of “the older we get, the better we used to be” – but I think it was easier when almost no-one had much more money than others, and if one had really much more, he was often careful to hide that fact. We have progressed, and that’s good. We have more, and that’s good. But sometimes having more makes us want even more, makes us want to have more than HE does. And the means to that end are often unlimited by what is legal.
But all countries, and especially this one, still need that spirit of pitching in and prioritizing what is best for the largest number of people and to make sure that as few people as possible are left behind physically or economically. The trend in politics in the western world is to pander to your own narrow group of followers, to gain as much for them as possible and the public be damned. And that’s exactly what will happen if such an attitude prevails.
In this spirit, it was good to see this week that some people who placed their own pockets above the public good received punishment for their actions. This is not schadenfreude. I don’t take pleasure in their downfall. Their actions besmirch our name to a greater extent than their punishment has earned praise for our legal system. To believe that this case will deter others from treading similarly selfish paths is probably as fatuous as believing that we learn from history. But then again, we can dream, and continue to hope for the best.