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January 27, 2017

Parashat Va-eira: Walking With You

Angela W. Buchdahl

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Last Shabbat as we began Exodus, we were introduced to a new Ruler. This new Pharaoh did not know Joseph and suspected all the Israelites. Dr. Daniel Roth, a Director at the Pardes Institute, a non-denominational yeshiva in Jerusalem where I studied for a summer, introduced me to a perspective found in the Book of Jubilees, that helped me see the new Pharaoh in a very different light.

This Jewish book dating back to the 2nd Century BCE describes an historical context we don’t usually hear: The new Pharaoh had come into power in Egypt because the old Pharaoh had been killed in battle, in a war with the Canaanites. The Israelites in Egypt originally came from Canaan. And they still thought of Canaan as their homeland – and returned there to bury their dead, including the bones of Jacob and Joseph. The Pharaoh suspected if Egypt went to war again with Canaan that the Israelites might join the “enemy” in fighting against them. To protect his people, he enslaved the Israelites and made them build a wall. The Book of Jubilees, this ancient commentary on the Bible, sheds light on why Pharaoh might have employed an “Egypt First” strategy, and portrays this new Pharaoh as a national hero for his people.

But Jews throughout the centuries have generally grown up understanding Pharaoh as the epitome of evil – as we retell the story in these weeks’ parshiot and at Passover every year. We read how Pharaoh is a ruthless ruler who enslaves the Israelites, hardens his heart and sacrifices his own people through countless plagues, in order to hold onto his power. He does not know, or has not bothered to educate himself, on how this foreigner Joseph had actually saved Egypt and the region by engineering the food program during the seven-year famine. Instead, he demonizes and oppresses an entire religious group. The Anchor Bible, the gold standard for academic Biblical scholarship, describes Pharaoh as an insecure, xenophobic demagogue who creates the historically inaccurate myth of the threat of this minority people for his own selfish political gain.

I find it amazing how the Torah, canonized over 2500 years ago, is still so relevant to our lives.

So how is it that people could see this leader in such diametrically opposed ways – as a protectionist who looked out for his people, or as a dangerous demagogue only looking out for his own interests? How is that one side sees the other side as naive or uneducated at best, and evil or morally bankrupt at worst? We know how people can become entrenched in their positions because we’re seeing it play out right here in our country, on our Facebook pages, and in the media, even right here in this congregation. I am so genuinely proud that Central is one of the most diverse congregations you will ever see – representing different ages, different economic positions, different races, and definitely – different politics. It is our strength, and something I truly celebrate, especially as people increasingly only spend time with people who resemble the way they look and think. But this diversity, in this important and sensitive time, has made for some challenges, too.

Never have emotions been running so high. Just this week, I heard from some who were terribly upset that we did not send buses to the Women’s March in Washington. And at the same time also heard from people who were upset that we listed information about the march, seemingly endorsing it, because some of the march’s organizers have made anti-Israel statements in the past. I have heard – sometimes on the very same day – from some worrying we are leaning too far left, and others, too far right.

So I am asking now for your trust and your patience – because we’re in this together for the long haul. Let’s begin by giving each other the kaf zechut – the benefit of the doubt. That’s a Jewish value. I have been in thoughtful conversation with our clergy team and lay leadership on how to keep our priorities clear, to pause without being passive, to lead from our core Jewish ideals, and also create a space that offers a respite from the cacophony – a return to our quieter inner life and the power of spiritual community.

For Central’s primary purpose is this: to be a spiritual home. For all our members. Our priorities are to care for those who are sick or struggling, comfort our mourners, educate our children, seed and sustain a love for Israel, celebrate our milestones and observe Shabbat and the seasons of our Jewish calendar. Our synagogue is uniquely privileged to share in these holy acts which form the sacred fabric of our Jewish lives.

But as the Talmud says: “One must always pray in a House that has windows:” our spiritual home also cannot separate us from the world outside the glass. Torah calls us to live out our values in the world, and primarily the value of caring for the Stranger, for we were that Stranger. We are reminded of it again in our Torah portion this week – where we were the feared and oppressed. And we continued to be reminded of this over and over in our Jewish narrative. The last time Americans heard the phrase “America First,” was from an anti-interventionist group in the early 1940’s, whose spokesperson, Charles Lindbergh made an anti-semitic speech to the America First Committee in 1941 claiming: “The greatest danger to this country lies in (the Jews) large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” He pushed for “America First,” and for staying out of World War II – and if he had been successful, Nazi Germany could have prevailed over the world. Standing up for the stranger, the refugee, the religious minority is not a matter of political debate or partisanship; it is our moral inheritance and our proud history. It has informed our ongoing commitment to compassion: we do not pull up the ladder behind us.

Some Jewish values are so clear that our spiritual home will be compromised if we stand idly by and do not act. I promise you, we will be rigorous and thoughtful about what we do, be guided constantly by Torah, and mindful of the diversity and sensitivities of our community. I imagine that we will not always agree on how to best live out our Jewish values. Remember that arguments for the sake of heaven are also a Jewish value. When you disagree with us, don’t think of leaving; please talk to us. Let us, as Central congregants committed to this Jewish house, model the art of civil discourse and respectful disagreement. I hope, if you ever worry that you might hold different political views from the person sitting next to you in the pews, that you see our ability to pray together and to talk honestly as the strength of this community. If you want to only talk to people who think the same way, we will continue to live in our bubbles.

In the words of Michael Walzer a prominent political theorist and public intellectual, “Wherever we go, it’s Eternally Egypt. But there’s a better place, a promised land and the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.”

We are definitely in the wilderness now. But there is no community I’d rather be in the wilderness with. You are opinionated, deeply decent and passionate – because you care so much. You push us to be better rabbis and cantors. And whatever side you are on, or thought you were on, remember that we’re all in this together – working each day to pull ourselves and others out of Egypt to that promised land.