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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Sh'mot                                      January 9, 2021 - 25 Tevet 5781

01/08/2021 08:14:41 AM


Hello everyone.  Happy New Year!  I’m Cantor Jeremy, and I want to welcome you all back with another Beth Radom video d’var Torah.

Over the winter holidays, I had thought of a fantastic d’var torah that I was very excited to share with you for this video.  It was about how much we used to take for granted being able to go traveling and exploring the world during our vacation time, as we are reminded just a little bit how perilous and significant it was that the tribe of Israel uprooted themselves from Canaan, the land that God promised them, and resettled in Egypt, which is how our parsha this week begins, setting up the entire story of the Exodus.  It really was going to be quite good.  

But we need to talk about what happened on Wednesday in Washington DC.  I think that many of the news organizations and pundits have actually been doing a decent job of helping us process it, not just for the American citizens, but for us as Canadians too, and also as thinking and caring citizens of the world.  But I also think that as Jews, we must process what happened using a Jewish lens, and I don’t mind sharing with you that putting my thoughts together for this video was good for my own sanity and peace of mind.

To quickly recap, as the United States congress met to certify the results of the electoral college, which is a mere formality before a new president can be sworn into office, the current US President incited rioters to storm the capital building with weapons that included guns, bombs, Molotov cocktails and gas, whereupon they broke into the senate chambers, various government offices, and committed acts of vandalism and theft, and claiming four lives in the process.  I could talk at length about how I feel that Donald Trump is directly responsible, how the rioters should be prosecuted, how Trump supporters in the House and the Senate should be ashamed of themselves for what they have helped bring about, about how the police behaved, and frankly how embarrassing the whole episode is, or at least should be, to all Americans (and as an American citizen, I include myself in that category as well).  And if there is an American out there who isn’t embarrassed, they should simply be shown this picture, for as long as it takes, until the shame finally sets in.  But as I said, there are a lot of people on tv covering those issues quite well.

So what does the Jewish voice have to add to the cacophony of opinions, accusations, and punditry that is consuming public discourse?  Jewish tradition has, over its thousands of years history, always had a respect for the power of words.  And I mean that not because it is our words that have the power to motivate or to incite, to love or to hate, to enlighten or to confuse, but rather Jewish people have always held that words, themselves, are in fact holy.  If you were to ask me, what is a Jewish blessing?  I would begin by teaching about the basic construct that we use, Baruch atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam.  We could talk at length about what those words mean, but those aren’t actually the words used for Jewish blessings, are they?  I’ve changed two of them.  Why?  Because Jews take blessings seriously, and if we’re not making an appropriate blessing, then we don’t invoke the actual words.  We do this because we believe that these words are sacred and shouldn’t be used callously.  So too, when we engage in prayer, our words our sacred, we take them seriously.  The words of Torah are sacred—words that our wisest sages over the last couple of thousand years have spent their lifetimes analyzing and exploring.  We refer to the entire Hebrew language as Lashon Kodesh, the holy tongue.  And Jews have also learned that when we hear words like “Jews will not replace us”, and “dirty Jew”, we hear them with deadly seriousness, which means that in a very dark and strange way, these words are sacred to us too.

The words that directly led to what we saw on Wednesday were plain for all to see and hear.  At a rally a few moments before the incident, Donald Trump directly said, and I quote, “And we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, we won’t have a country anymore”, and that was only moments before telling the crowd to walk down Pennsylvania Ave. to the capitol.  Those words were sacred and the world should have taken them seriously.  Each time he told his followers not to believe the election results, the world should have taken those words seriously.  Each time he has villainized an opponent, every time he made a bigoted statement all the way back to calling Mexican immigrants rapists when it all began 5 years ago, the world should have taken his words seriously.  Without universal repudiation, the meaning of those words took hold, they were allowed to fester and cause a rot in the fabric of our modern society that has gone beyond the borders of the US.

This week in shul, we read parshat Sh’mot, the beginning of the book of Exodus.  In the opening verses, we read about the 70 members of the Israelite clan, that immigrated to Egypt, where their brother, Joseph, second in command to the Pharoah could help provide for them during the famine.  By verse 8, years have gone by and the entire generation of Joseph had passed on, the Israelite nation had, meanwhile, grown significantly in number, at which point the Torah tells us that a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.  For fear that the Israelites might one day become so powerful as to challenge the Egyptians, Pharoah ordered that the Israelites be enslaved… or did he?  According to the Torah, Pharaoh actually said “hava nitchakmah lo”, “let us deal shrewdly with them”.  Pharaoh makes no mention of slavery.  So how exactly did it happen that the Israelites became enslaved?  You would think that if there was an edict from the Pharaoh that all Israelites were suddenly committed to slavery that there would be a rebellion, or some escapees?  Ramban, the medieval commentator sheds some light on this question.  The Egyptian people, says Ramban, would not have let Pharaoh commit gratuitous violence against the Israelites.  Instead Pharaoh said that they should act cleverly so that the Israelites would not sense that they were acting out of enmity towards them.  I think it makes perfect sense.  You can’t enslave a whole population right away.  It takes time.  Freedoms have to be taken away slowly, their humanity stripped away carefully.  Meanwhile, Pharaoh also had to desensitize the Egyptians, teach them that they have been treated unfairly and that there is a group of people who are the cause for all of their problems.  They need to learn the words to demonize and dehumanize the Israelites.  Jews today know all too well how this process changes a society and where it can lead.

It does seem that the incident on Wednesday, which we could even call a coup attempt, has rattled America, perhaps even enough to help many more people to see through the barrage of lies, misinformation and propaganda that has been a large part of the American diet for the last 5 years as it has slowly eroded our sense of honour and decency, and our respect for each other.  If so, we can only hope that as the source of that influence wanes in power, we can all open a new chapter together and reinvest our words with the holiness they deserve.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782