The True Measure of a Society: Shemot 5777


January 20, 2017 – WRT



“There arose over Egypt a new king, who knew not Joseph.”

Exodus, Chapter One, Verse Eight – from this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus.

“There arose over Egypt a new king, who knew not Joseph.”

The Sages asked:  How can this be?  How could a king, even a new king, not know Joseph, the famed Israelite who had come up from the dungeon of despair to the pinnacle of power, the boy dreamer who had risen to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, the visionary leader who saved Egypt from certain disaster by planning for seven years of famine, nationalizing Egypt’s farmland?

How could this new king not know Joseph?

The Sages argued:  Is this really a new king?  In the Talmud—that great collection of Jewish wisdom—one commentator named Rav said yes, this is a different person, literally, a new king.  His sparring partner, Shmuel, said, no, it’s the same Pharaoh as before—for nowhere does the Bible state that the former Pharaoh had died and a new Pharaoh taken his place.  Rather, only his decrees are new.  In other words, with Joseph out of the picture, the Pharaoh had a change of heart toward the Hebrews.  The Talmud interprets the words “who did not know Joseph” in verse eight to mean that the Pharaoh issued decrees against the Israelites as if he did not know Joseph (Bavli, Sotah 11a, also Shemot Rabbah 1:8).

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter—the end result is the same.  What matters is that this king—new or not—disregards the honorable legacy of Joseph and “otherizes” the Israelites, assigning them a permanent status as foreigners, no matter how long they had lived in the land nor how much they had contributed to the welfare of their adoptive country.

Matthew Henry was a nonconformist minister who lived in Wales and England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  He published extensive commentaries on the Old and New Testaments.  Examining the question of the “king who knew not Joseph,” Henry concluded:

“The land of Egypt became to Israel a house of bondage.  The place where we have been happy, may soon become the place of our affliction…. All that knew Joseph, loved him, and were kind to his brethren for his sake; but the best and most useful services a man does to others, are soon forgotten after his death.  Our great care should be, to serve God….”

Rulers come and rulers go, but we, children of God, need to stay true to ourselves and to our God.  

We do that by remembering our own history of vulnerability and by remembering that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.

We know all too well that “the place where we have been happy, may soon become the place of our affliction.”  For Jews, Henry’s warning has become a twice-told tale, whether we refer to the flesh-pots of Egypt in Biblical times, the Roman diaspora from our native land in the century after Jesus walked the earth, the mistreatment of Jews in nearly every European country of the Middle Ages, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, the devastation of the Holocaust, and the violent repression and deportation of Jewry in places as vast and far-flung as the Soviet Union and numerous Arab states in the Middle East. Through all these difficulties, the Jewish people have demonstrated miraculous resiliency.  Just when we thought we were safe—even, at times, powerful, prosperous, and well-integrated into a society into which generations of our people had been born, so as to think of ourselves as native sons and daughters—along came some Destroyer to puncture our sense of safety with acts of hostility and hatred:  at times Pharaohs and kings, at times Popes and bishops, at times armies and police, at times peasants with pitchforks and torches.

For people of color, the story follows a different recipe but the basic ingredients, when you boil it down, are the same:  institutionalized discrimination, forced deprivation, and violence, often supported by the state.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes:  “The plunder of black communities is not a bump along the road, but it is, in fact, the road itself that you can’t have in America without enslavement, without Jim Crow, terrorism, everything that came after that.”

I do not recall these sad and sordid histories in order for any of us to wallow in despair.  In fact, I can imagine nothing more self-destructive than to build our identities exclusively around having been history’s suffering scapegoats.

The Jewish story combines industriousness, wisdom, luck and resourcefulness, leavened with a healthy dose of adversity and not the other way around.  Indeed, any contest over who is history’s biggest victim is one none of us should ever hope to win.

Still, whether you are Jewish or Black (or both!), or if you are a Muslim living in America today, or if you are part of the LGBTQ community, or if you are an immigrant—or the son or daughter or descendant of an immigrant—remembering our common histories of vulnerability—remembering without fetishizing—serves an important purpose:  It keeps us humble.  It is a hedge against haughtiness.  It protects us from the perils of pride—of treating any measure of power or privilege into which we may have been born, or any advantage that may have come to us from those who came before us—as a birthright or an entitlement.

Remembering our historic vulnerability teaches us never to take our success for granted.  Consider the words of Joshua, who charged the Hebrews upon entering the promised land to remember their roots and remember their God:  “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

In one of his most misunderstood and misquoted speeches, former President Barack Obama sounded a similar theme:  “…[L]ook,” he said, “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen….”

“The point is,” he concluded, “that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

We succeed because we do things together.  Because we work and give and do for the sake of those who have less.  Because we lift up the disadvantaged, the deprived, the disabled.  Rulers come and rulers go, but the true measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable.  The Bible itself instructs us to take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—not once, but 36 times—more than any other commandment.

The minorities, the foreigners, the refugees, the immigrants, the poor, the women, the children, the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured—today’s stranger, orphan and widow—no matter the society or the circumstances, all of these have always borne the brunt of suffering at the hands of the powerful.  Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century Rabbi and the founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism, explains that the alleged “new king who did not no Joseph” first exploited the Hebrews’ status as foreigners, aliens in order to carry out his diabolical schemes against them.

“The root and beginning of this indescribable maltreatment,” he says, “was the supposed lack of rights of a foreigner… In Egypt, the cleverly calculated lowering of the rights of the Jews on the score of their being aliens came first; the harshness and the cruelty followed by itself, as it always does and will, when the basic idea of right has first been given wrong conception.”

Hirsch is saying that singling out people who come from different places, speak different languages, have skin that looks more brown or black or yellow or red than it does white or pink or even orange—impugning their patriotism, raising suspicions about their loyalty, “otherizing” them, denying them the same rights and freedoms due every other citizen, inevitably leads to maltreatment, harshness, cruelty, violence.

The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable!

That’s why WRT works with the Open Arms Shelter to open our doors to the homeless and hungry, dedicates our temple kitchen to “Cooking 4 a Cause,” and sends congregants of all ages to the Hebrew Union College Soup Kitchen in Manhattan.

That’s why WRT has for almost fifteen years partnered with Westchester Jewish Community Services and the Amazing Afternoons program of the Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon, to provide after-school help for students.

That’s why WRT is proud to have our own Cantor Abramson participate in a Global Justice Fellowship to the Dominican Republic, from which she just returned, where she worked with a cohort of rabbis and activists to learn about systematic discrimination and institutionalized statelessness for Haitian laborers, among many other pressing social concerns.

That’s why WRT advocates for public policy that protects the most vulnerable.  Because policy is how we make change.  And we need to start paying a lot less attention to what our elected officials say or Tweet and a lot more attention to what they sign into legislation!  This weekend our congregants will participate with our own Yoel Magid in the Raise the Age campaign through the Westchester Children’s Association which advocates for changing the age of juvenile offenders in New York State from 16 to 18—meaning that 16-year-old offenders could no longer be tried and sentenced as adults.

That’s why WRT is sending two buses with Cantor Kleinman and our Rabbinic Intern, Eliana Fischel, Saturday at (the admittedly ungodly hour of) 4:30 AM to join the Women’s March on Washington, declaring through united, nonviolent demonstration that women’s rights are human rights, regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.

And that’s why WRT has applied to be first in line in Westchester County when the State Department approves the resettlement of fifty Syrian refugees.  Working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—an organization that, over the course of 125 years, has assisted over four and a  half million people fleeing hardship and violent conflict, WRT intends to devote substantial volunteer hours toward this effort in 2017.  Already almost 150 congregants have stepped up to signal their readiness and willingness to help, and our Refugee Resettlement Task Force is prepared and ready to go for when we receive a green light from the State Department and HIAS.

Because the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.  And our God, the God of Scripture, the Living God of History, the God of our ancestors and our descendants, is a mighty God—but not a God of the mighty, but rather a God of the vulnerable.

Our God is mighty because above human power God places human dignity.  Above ambition God places altruism.  Above personal achievement God places the shared portion.

Our God is mighty because, as the Prophet declares, God has no need for sacrifice and prayer, ritual piety and even organized religion when one’s heart is saturated with greed and one’s hands are stained with blood.  Only when we take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow does God find favor in our offerings.

Our God is mighty because, as a wise rabbi once taught upon a Galilean hilltop some 2,000 years ago, God has reserved blessing for the lowly in station but pure of heart:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be sated.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 


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