Parashat Shemot 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Shemot 5776

I think, in many ways, the films of today are not to unlike the Bible as it was written. Because as the Bible presented the world as it was, film does this too. The Bible contains narratives about real people’s lives, and so does film. The Bible presents mythologies and so does the film. Oh how we love myth; I give you Star Wars. I love films. I love to be transported someplace else and I love to think about what they say about us and our world.

Did you see the movie Brooklyn? I did and thought it sweet but not particularly important. And I had a thought about Brooklyn…almost a silly thought. And that was this love story between a young attractive Irish immigrant and a handsome Italian young man had a rather simple and predictable quality about it. And my thought was that if this were made of a Jewish family, I imagine the drama would have been much greater and the family tensions much more severe. We seem to thrive on drama. Perhaps it’s because we don’t take existence for granted…not just the life of the individual, but the life of our people. We always see it as becoming unhinged. Existential threats fuel our narrative and we have hundreds of organizations that make their living on our threats, our victimization and constant crisis.

Today, we began the reading of a new book of Torah. Today we began Exodus. Genesis ended on an almost serene note. Imagine this preeminent Jewish text ends with resolve. Jacob found his long lost son. The family has been reunited. Joseph has forgiven his brothers and we witnessed reconciliation. Under Joseph’s protection and influence, the family has settled in Goshen, one of the most prosperous regions of Egypt. They now have homes, property, food, and the protection of Joseph and the favor of Pharaoh. It must have seemed one of the golden moments of Abraham’s family’s history.

We have experienced other “golden ages” but we don’t talk that much about them. Our conversations tend to turn towards the moments of threat, crisis, exile and death. Many of you have heard my reflections on the March of the Living. This is a great experience for teenagers – and now, adults – to visit the Camps and Ghettoes of Poland. Over time there has been a dimension to that experience that has grown. That is, there were five hundred years of Polish Jewish history before the Shoah. There we created an incredible Jewish life, magnificent synagogues, and significant Jewish communities and institutions. And we also contributed mightily to the well-being of Poland. For a long time we neglected to reveal those years of learning and prosperity and contribution.

Let’s look a little at why we carry the crisis narrative and are so hesitant and refrain from the conversation about our contribution and success and the golden years.

We transitioned this week from the end of Genesis and the resolution of family crisis to reconciliation. And we began the Book of Exodus. “There arose a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” There was a political climate change. The family fell out of favor. Pharaoh told his advisers: “Look, the Israelite people are becoming too numerous and strong for us” – the first time the word “people” is used in the Torah with reference to the children of Israel. “Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase.” And so the whole mechanism of oppression moves into operation – forced labor that turns into slavery that becomes attempted genocide.

The story is engraved in our memory. And we continue engraving. We tell it every year at the Seder. We are constantly reminded of this in our liturgy, and in our prayers every day. It is part of what it is to be a Jew. Slavery, crisis, oppression, exile and death are a constant feature of traditional Judaism. There’s a sign at a local kosher deli…it is an adage you all know. The definition of a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

But it’s more than eating that we have done. And here’s where I think the crisis narrative has served us well, or at least did serve us well for so long.

Here I was influenced by the work of Jonathan Sacks on this parshah.
There is one phrase that shines out from the text: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they spread.” That, no less than oppression itself, is part of what it means to be a Jew. The worse things get, the stronger we become. Jews are the people who not only survive, but thrive, in adversity. We have great resiliency.

Jewish history is not merely a story of Jews enduring catastrophes that might have spelled the end to less tenacious groups. It is that after every disaster, Jews renewed themselves. They discovered some hitherto hidden reservoir of spirit that fueled new forms of collective self-expression as the carriers of God’s message to the world.

It seems that almost every tragedy led to new creativity. After the division of the kingdom following the death of Solomon came the great literary prophets, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Out of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile came the renewal of Torah in the life of the nation, beginning with Ezekiel and culminating in the vast educational program brought back to Israel by Ezra and Nehemiah. From the destruction of the Second Temple came the world of the rabbis and the literature of rabbinic Judaism: Mishnah, Midrash and Gemara.

From the Crusades came the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the North European School of piety and spirituality. Following the Spanish expulsion came the mystic circle of Tzefat, Lurianic Kabbalah, and all it inspired by way of poetry and prayer. From East European persecution and poverty came the Hassidic movement and its revival of grass-roots Judaism through a seemingly endless flow of story and song. And from the worst tragedy of all, the Holocaust, came the rebirth of the state of Israel, the greatest collective Jewish affirmation of life in more than two thousand years. After 2,000 years of exile – we have a home.

It is well known that the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” Any civilization that can see the blessing within the curse, the fragment of light within the heart of darkness, has within it the capacity to endure.

And one of the survivors of all of our exiles is the Hebrew language, which may very well be connected to this capacity to be resilient.

The word for crisis, mashber, also means “a child-birth chair” which is the chair used by a midwife. Written into the semantics of Jewish consciousness is the idea that the pain of hard times is a collective form of the contractions of a woman giving birth. Something new is being born. That is the mindset of a people of whom it was said in the text that “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they spread.”

So let’s consider where did it come from, this Jewish ability to turn weakness into strength, adversity into advantage, darkness into light? We might say it’s Genesis. It goes back to the moment in which our people received its name, Israel. It was then, as Jacob wrestled alone at night with an angel, that as dawn broke his adversary begged him to let him go. “I will not let you go until you bless me”, said Jacob. That is the source of our peculiar, distinctive obstinacy. We may have fought all night. We may be tired and on the brink of exhaustion. We may find ourselves limping, as did Jacob. Yet we will not let our adversary go until we have extracted a blessing from the encounter. This turned out to be not a minor and temporary concession. It became the basis of his new name and our identity. Israel, the people who “wrestled with God and man and prevailed” we are the nation that grows stronger with each conflict and catastrophe. How ironic…How unique.

I think there is also a personal dimension in this. It has to do with how we respond individually to crisis, to disease, to dark periods. Some people fold. Others use it as challenge and grow stronger, find new ways of living life, learn lessons in dark periods.

Recently as Israel faced another wave of terror the press reported “Israel is an astonishing country, buzzing with energy and confidence, a magnet for talent and investment – a cauldron of innovation.” It spoke of its world-class excellence in aerospace, clean-tech, irrigation systems, software, cyber-security, pharmaceuticals and defense systems.

And Israel personifies this in so many ways. Born surrounded by hostile neighbors, growing a nation in the dessert without natural resources somehow the miracle flourished. In Israel, until recently, immigration became an uncanny source of strength, and the military taught culture and values. Why? So my question is: Do we need adversity to sustain and to grow?

And that leads to the next question: What happens when we no longer perceive or our children don’t see us as a dying people?

I would like to suggest alternatives, and I would like to say that even going back to Exodus, it is NOT slavery that defines us. It is what we do with slavery. It is in the skills we develop, and the learning that allow us to change our mourning into celebration.

Up until now the key element of our culture has to do with the Jewish response to crisis. To every adverse circumstance, those who have inherited Jacob’s sensibilities insist: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” That is how Jews, encountering the Negev, found ways of making the desert bloom. Seeing a barren, neglected landscape elsewhere, they planted trees and forests. Faced with hostile armies on all their borders, they developed military technologies they then turned to peaceful use. War and terror forced Israel to develop medical expertise and world-leading skills in dealing with the aftermath of trauma. They found ways of turning every curse into a blessing.

The historian Paul Johnson, as always, put it eloquently: Over 4,000 years the Jews proved themselves not only great survivors but extraordinarily skillful in adapting to the societies among which fate had thrust them, and in gathering whatever human comforts they had to offer. LISTEN TO THIS: No people has been more fertile in enriching poverty or humanizing wealth, or in turning misfortune to creative account.

There is something profoundly spiritual as well as very practical about this ability to transform the bad moments of life into creativity. It is as if, deep within us were a voice saying, “You are in this situation, bad though it is, because there is a task to perform, a skill to acquire, a strength to develop.

But it is here where I think a different chapter – a new chapter – must be reclaimed as central. Just as the chapter of slavery lead to a chapter of Revelation and receiving Torah. It’s being able to go beyond the influence of corrupt power and destruction and hatred and oppression and sustain and grow a people when they are free and strong and alive and not endangered. We must use our strength wisely and bring spirit and decency to our work and our lives.
I reject a perception that glorifies power and I curse the oppression of others. I dare say we Jewish people bring God into the world in a way that imposes upon us the obligation to raise up the poor, educate those in need, fight for the rights of minorities and the oppressed, open our doors to the immigrant in need. This is the central, the core religious narrative.

It’s hard for us not to see ourselves as about to be destroyed…but we’re not. We have the most important strategic alliances, we are capable of defending ourselves, and we are flourishing. It’s very hard to leave an old paradigm, but ask your kids…We are surrounded by Jewish creativity and strength. Jews are flourishing and contributing in the arts and in the sciences and in business and in technology and in medicine and research and development – there’s a good reason why everyone going to Israel continues to return and report how happy the society is.

I don’t deny great challenges. The great political challenges, the great challenges with Palestinians, the challenge of Iran – they are all real and call for strength and innovative responses. But our vision must not be clouded by prophesies of despair or a sense that we are dying…We are not. And we cannot be a nation like others…We are not. We must use our power wisely, creatively, responsibly.

And we should not only be supporters of the multiple organizations inducing fear. We must support the institutions, schools and shuls that educate and create hope, that speak a Jewish values language. The place now where we need to be focusing our efforts is in strengthening education and the culture of our communities and going beyond our selves. Our recollection that we were slaves and strangers over and again is NOT meant to say that we need to see ourselves that way now, but rather to open our minds and heart to the slaves and strangers of the world. Because we have learned from our experience. The Torah does not end with Parshat Shemot. It continues to Sinai and then the great possibilities of our life in a land.

We are part of a new narrative. It’s based on a strong people who must use power differently, use wealth to educate and lift up the poor, as we continue to  emphasize education and learning as a way deepen our values.

That’s our new narrative!

Let us move forward together – as we hold on to hope and idealism – and walk towards Sinai receiving a message that creates a people who used their learning to insure survival, their faith to hold on to hope, and their commitments to build a better tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom