It is impossible to have been unaffected by the terrible events that transpired in France this week. And the Torah portion for this past week, Shemot, ends with a promise of redemption; ironic timing. So much happens in the parshat that choosing one thing to write of is problematic. Joseph has passed away and the people Israel are multiplying. Perhaps for this reason Pharoah and thus all Egypt changes its view of the Israelites, seeing them as a threat. “A new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph”. The new king orders the death of all male Jewish babies and bravely, the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse this command. As a result of this refusal, the Egyptians are commanded to throw all the babies into the river.
Moses is born to Yocheved and is raised by Pharoah’s daughter. He commits murder and flees, marrying Tzipporah and becoming a shepherd. While herding at the foot of Sinai, the burning bush appears and G-d commands him to return and demand that Pharoah “let his people go.” He does and, in short, is unsuccessful such that the suffering of the Jews is multiplied despite their belief in Moses that redemption is at hand.
In the space of a single generation, the lives and fate of the Jews is abruptly changed from a reasonably peaceful and presumably prosperous presence in Egypt to a feared and despised presence with the murder of their male children a priority of the culture. In the space of how many single generations has this happened to the Jews, the rise of anti-Semitism and the near complete destruction of the Jewish population in the Shoah. The inquisition and the forced conversion or death of the Jews of Spain.
How quickly public attitudes, fears and prejudices shift and change. The terrible rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment throughout Europe, really in the space of generation or so, in this the third largest Jewish population in the world.
The swiftness of this shift is frightening and, coming in the wake of Chanukah, a festival of freedom poses a powerful lesson. Freedom, liberty and security are not to be taken for granted. The mundane, grocery shopping, turns to a nightmare at the hands of a terrorist with a gun in the blink of an eye; a cup of coffee in an Israeli café is blown to bits on a sunny day. We light our candles in the window because we can, because we declare ourselves publicly as Jews, as proud and as free. But we are at risk in doing so. Can we be as brave as Shifrah and Puah, resisting the public bent to anti-Semitism, speaking aloud our horror and resistance to acts of terror and physically violent anti-Semitic behavior?
Moses returns to speak with G-d and bemoans the difficulty of the lives of the Israelites and G-d’s response is the promise of redemption. But we do not have the luxury to wait for a modern redemption, G-d gave us will, G-d gave us choice and G-d gave us the ability to act. And act we must. If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I. If not now, when? And so, what we learned “at Sinai’s foot” we need to attend ~ freedom is every and it is not easy.
And special thanks to Rabbi Joe Black for sparking this train of thought.