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Parashat Shemot 5784

January 3, 2024
by Hazzan Rabbi Luis Cattan ('20)

Growing up in Uruguay, I learned about the Exodus in two different languages, Hebrew and Spanish. The Hebrew version spoke about the story that named the Book of the Torah—Moses’s birth, rise, and glory as a leader. The Spanish version spoke about the birth, rise, and glory of a different leader: Jose Artigas, the leader of the Uruguayan people.

The following concepts – exodus, independence, and freedom – are associated and reinforced by two narratives that are very close and dear to me. Most scholars agree that the story of the Book of Exodus is the point of origin of Jewish Nationhood. Most historians agree that the event of the “Exodo del Pueblo Oriental” (as it is called in Spanish- Orientals was the name of the inhabitants of the land that was situated to the orient -east- to the Uruguay River) is the foundational event that led (unknowingly to those who participated in it) to the birth of Uruguayan nationhood.

And there are many other parallels. Like Moses, Artigas stemmed from the dominant class, which he eventually abandoned to run a seemingly impossible endeavor. Artigas wasn’t aware that his efforts would lead to nation-building and never saw his vision come true. Neither did Moses. Artigas died in exile, and so did Moses. Artigas, like Moses, was a practical, radical leader. Like Moses, he became a leader later in his life, and both felt accountable to their people. “My authority emanates from you, and it ceases because of your sovereign presence,” said Artigas in 1813. Likewise, Moses gave a precise account of the goods that were collected to build the Tabernacle as a sign of accountability. Artigas, like Moses, proposed a reciprocal covenant between members of his nation. He mediated between different positions of his people while not renouncing the core values. The comparisons can go on for pages, but the point is the unarguable source of inspiration that the story of the Exodus represents for what happened in Artigas’ life.

I grew up in Uruguay during a dark period of its history. After a long history of democratic institutions, in 1973 there was a coup d’etat. The parliament was dissolved, and a military regime took over for 11 years until 1984. Every media outlet had to submit its publications to a censorship office. I experienced firsthand what it is not to enjoy an open society with freedom of the press, expression, and assembly. We learned the art of self-censorship while expressing our ideas without really naming them. As teenagers, we devoured the protest songs that were prohibited on the radio but circulated clandestinely in cassette tapes that were listened to with passion in adrenaline-charged sessions at private homes.

We knew that there was an official version in the newspapers and then the truth. We became experts in reading between the lines, in the power of metaphorical language at times when free expression was just a value learned from forbidden books or taught in closed circles. I was privileged to attend a Jewish day school that hired some of the teachers who were blacklisted in the public education system. They were fearless and taught us the art of reading reality in a non-official way. Yes, they were rough years but seminal for my formation as an individual and as a Jew. Learning about Artigas’ Exodus meant much more than a historical event. Learning about Moses and his saga inspired us in a more applicable way.

Today, in America, I feel similar to what I felt then. I sometimes censor myself because we, as Jews, have lost some of our freedom of speech, not because we have an authoritative military regime that oppresses us, but because we have an authoritative loud crowd that will cancel our views. We may be verbally and even physically attacked when we dissent from the “accepted versions,” or if we just wave an Israeli flag in support of the victims of terror, or if we declare ourselves Zionists. I am afraid that American society, like the Uruguayan society then, is forgetting the value of democracy, pluralism, and mutual respect.

Prior to the de facto regime, the Uruguayan society was in a similar confrontational model. They read the Exodo of Artigas like we read Moses’ Exodus, detached from their own experiences. The passing of time and the distance from historical events made the leading actors of that period take freedoms for granted.

Our Torah can serve to remind us of what’s at stake. In this week’s parashah, we read: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8).

Here, the neglect of recent history generates a crisis. Rashi considers two possibilities as to what this “new king” implies. He cites the Talmudic makhloket that “Rav and Samuel disagreed. One said, ‘This was literally a new king’. The other said, ‘His policy was changed. “He did not know” means he made himself as though he did not know.’”

Given my direct experience with a society that descends into dictatorship, I suggest that Pharaoh knew who Joseph was; he just ignored the long-standing relationship as a means to consolidate power. As Aviva Zornberg puts it: ‘The politics of genocide begin here. In the amnesia of a new king, the gratitude owed to Joseph—who had saved Egypt from famine— is forgotten, and with it all ethical consciousness. Suddenly, without warning, the shadows of envy, hatred, and murder begin to gather.”

In Uruguay, a new time came when Artigas was neglected or, even worse, misappropriated. His figure became an emblem of the dictatorship when his predicament was the opposite – to defend liberty and representation. Uruguayan society forgot or neglected like Pharaoh neglected Joseph’s existence, the value of freedom—the importance of maintaining a healthy society. I can see some of the same signs in our own American society now and some among the new generation of Jewish people who don’t know who Herzl was, who have never met a Holocaust survivor, and who question the need for the mere existence of their own ancestral homeland- the State of Israel. The forgetfulness is multi-dimensional. Political leaders who are neglecting Jews like Pharaoh did. Societies that forget that we all are equally deserving of respect and consideration as the cornerstone of the societal covenant. Jews who ignore that they are also stakeholders in another covenant, the one that Moses brokered for us and that allowed us to become a nation, the one that contains the values that still inspire the world. They ignore, they forget, they neglect. We ignore, we forget, we neglect.

The stories that begin in this week’s parashah are not just biblical tales to be recounted at the Seder table. Exodus is our master story, and it is part of the living Torah that comes to remind us that we, as a collective and as individuals, are forgetting, like in Egypt (Mitzrayim), where the situation was of not knowing, not seeing, not hearing, and repressed speech. When the people of Israel were in that environment, they weren’t able to thrive; they were in Meitzarim (distress)- as the midrashic play of words explains. Today, as a nation and as a spiritual collective, we are potentially facing a new Mitzrayim, but only this time, thanks to the Torah, we know how to overcome it.
Ḥazzan Rabbi Luis Cattan (AJR ’20) is currently serving at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City. He is the Immediate Past President of the Cantors Assembly. As a native Uruguayan, he attended the Catholic University of Montevideo receiving his BA in Social Communication Sciences with a major in Advertising. He sought private instruction under the tutelage of renowned local teachers. Upon returning from Israel, where he spent a year studying, he started his Ḥazzanut training with different mentors in Uruguay and Argentina as well. He became the Head Ḥazzan at the NCI (the largest Conservative Synagogue in Uruguay). He also served as International Vice President of Mercaz Olami (Zionist Conservative Movement) as one of the founders of the Uruguayan Branch.