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Parashat Shemot 5780

January 16, 2020

Antisemitism Then and Now
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

There is a gnawing question that has plagued many commentators, as we witness in this week’s Torah portion, what could be referred to as the first recorded case of antisemitism:

How did the Jewish people fall from grace to disgrace in such a relatively short period of time?

More specifically, what exactly happened during the two hundred years since the Israelites were welcomed into Egypt with open arms – to the point when a new Pharaoh arose and enacted policies that targeted the descendants of Joseph?

As last week’s Parashah ended, all appeared to be well between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The Torah tells us that officials from the highest levels of the Egyptian government accompanied Joseph as he travelled to Canaan to bury his father, Jacob.

This included, “…all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of the court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries…” (Genesis 50:7)

Yet this week, as we open the Book of Exodus, we are told that a new king arose in Egypt, “who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8).

The Egyptian leader expresses doubt over the loyalty of the Jewish people. He fears the Israelites are too numerous, and that they may ally with Egypt’s enemies. Persecution follows.

This trend repeats itself dozens of times throughout Jewish history.

The great French commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), offers a number of explanations for Pharaoh’s actions. He refers to the Talmudic dispute between the sages, Rav and Shmuel, who provide opposing, but interesting, views.

One suggests that the arrival of a new Pharaoh, may explain the change in Egypt’s policies, and the other suggests that the Pharaoh was an existing king, who “…acted as if he did not know Joseph.”  (Sotah 11a)

Either way, it is clear that a breakdown in goodwill occurred between the numerous descendants of Jacob, and the king who ruled from many miles away.

Interestingly, the Torah makes no mention of dialogue preceding the Israelites’ enslavement. The Torah only shares Pharaoh’s suspicion toward these outsiders who dressed, spoke, worshipped and conducted themselves differently.

For many years, I served as a communications director within Canadian government. It was, and continues to be, common practice that, when a breakdown was about to occur between parties or interests, discussions would occur in order to ease tensions.

This is based on the idea that individuals and groups inherently want to get along. Often, as parties discuss concerns in pro-active manner, mistrust and suspicion can be eased. At minimum, there exists a guiding principle that more communication is preferable to none.

During ancient times, modes of communication were not as immediate and free-flowing as today. And it is reasonable to assume that the Israelites’ isolation in the northeastern corner of Egypt did not encourage trust and harmony.

Are there any parallels we can draw from the Torah to how nations interact today? As we fast-forward to today’s political climate, we are witnessing a disturbing trend within many societies to blame, target or dehumanize “the other.”

Indeed, the reading of this week’s Torah portion is very relevant, as Jews throughout the world experience a rise in antisemitism.

While it may be true that antisemitism has historically, and will continue to be, a fact of life, there may be some general parallels to draw between today and ancient times.

A scan of antisemitic Internet sites, reveals a barrage of hatred and animosity, much of it based on ignorance and misinformation. While some are based on outright bigotry, often, the proliferation of these materials to naïve readers remains largely unchecked.

We also have witnessed within the New York and New Jersey areas, as communities of visible Jews move into new neighborhoods, a degree of suspicion toward these outsiders.

Following a recent rampage in Jersey City which claimed four lives, a video surfaced of bystanders uttering antisemitic comments.

The immediate instinct on behalf of many Jewish communities is to isolate themselves. Based on centuries of antisemitism, it is natural for some Jews to be hesitant to interact with those of different backgrounds.

Yet, there is an argument to be made for more contact between Jewish communities and those of other faiths and perspectives. Indeed, there is evidence that more communication and interaction can decrease tension and suspicion.

Sharing religious customs and traditions can help build bridges.

It is why interfaith dialogue between the Jewish community and other cultures is important. Communities need to interact in order to reach common ground and to enhance mutual respect.

This message is no more relevant that on this particular weekend, as members of the African-American community along with all Americans honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader who espoused harmony and the unity of all God’s children.

The attendance of Jewish clergy, lay leaders and others at local and regional events, can only reinforce relationships across religious and cultural lines.

While we will never know what happened during the two hundred years between the arrival of Jacob and his family in Egypt, and the change in the Pharaoh’s policies, the Torah’s seemingly abrupt reference to suspicion and persecution gives us cause to consider.

Should current trends of antisemitism be ignored, or should Jewish leaders and communities reach out to people of other faiths and backgrounds?

Should we allow the proliferation of antisemitic materials to grow unchecked, or should we take initiative or otherwise support, those who monitor these websites?

How can we create an environment where we can interact, educate and communicate with those around us?

As Genesis 5:1 inspires us to consider and practice, we are all descendants of Adam. We are in this journey together.

It therefore behooves us to reach out to surrounding communities, in the spirit of loving and open communication, for the good of the Jewish people and perhaps for all humanity.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation located in Glen Cove, NY.