Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Sh’mot 5783
Drawing on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, Rabbi Timoner introduces The Book of Exodus and contemplates the concept of narrowing.
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Serach, what a profound joy to welcome you in person to CBE after years of learning with you and praying with you over zoom. What a profound joy to watch you become a bat mitzvah here in our sanctuary, for you to chant from the Torah, to teach us Torah, as a member of our community. What a blessing you are.
You spoke today about your journey to claiming your place among the Jewish people. Your journey to memory, to history, to ancestry, to roots, to belonging. How poetic that you taught us today about your tribe, your people, called the Nilotic people, for your origins in the Nile basin, just as we read today about our people’s story in Egypt, around that very river. On the very week that we read about our children being thrown into the Nile to die, you are telling us about the Nilotic people who want to join, or rejoin, the Jewish people.
Yours is a different story than most Jews have heard before, a very different story than the one we know. All of this raises the very human question: who are we? How do we define ourselves in relation to edges and boundaries, us and them, identity and belonging.
Our parasha opens וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה
Rabbi Art Green points out that while translated These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt, it equally can be read in the continuous present tense, “as they come to Egypt.” And of course Mitzrayim is not just Egypt but the straits, the Delta, the narrow place where you’re squeezed on both sides.
It wasn’t just that generation, but all of us, in a continuous present tense, who are faced periodically with a narrowing, a shrinking, a contraction. We go through times in our history, in our world, when people want to patrol the boundaries of who is us, to demarcate and narrow. To sharpen, delineate, and exclude.
Pharaoh is the one who plays this role in this story, but it’s a universal human experience that we all sometimes enter the narrow place, where we are constricted in our vision, in our imagination, in what’s in and what’s out, who’s in and who’s out.
A new king arose over Egypt, the parasha tells us. But in Talmud Sotah 11, Rav and Shmuel argue about whether this really was a new king, given that there’s no mention that the old king died, or whether it’s the same old king who suddenly started behaving as if he didn’t know Joseph. Chizkuni suggests “that his attitude vis a vis the Israelites underwent such a change that he might as well have been a different king altogether” Daat Zkenim gives more background. “The Egyptians suggested to him to oppose the Hebrews politically. The king said to them, how can we do this, seeing that thus far we have prospered thanks to them? The Egyptians did not like this and removed this new king from the throne for a period of three months. After the three months had elapsed, the king told the people that he was willing to change his attitude on the subject and to oppose the Hebrews.”
It just so happens that we are discussing a book here at CBE called Anti-Judaism by David Nirenberg, a book which traces the history of antiJewish ideas throughout history, and it just so happens that today we are discussing the chapter of the book that focuses on ancient Egypt.
It turns out that in 650 BCE, in Elephantine, Southern border of Egypt, there was an Israelite garrison and Egyptian garrison working together. There was an Israelite Temple where animal sacrifices performed right next to an Egyptian temple. The people lived and worshiped side by side with no incident for 200 years. But then, in 419 BCE, in what’s known as the Passover Letter, the Persian government orders the Egyptians to stay away from Jewish temple during Passover. Nine years later, 410 BCE, the Egyptians destroyed the Jewish temple.
There are four theories about what went wrong.
- The Persians had destroyed Egyptian temple during the Persian conquest but spared Israelite temple. This was possibly monotheistic solidarity, possibly a strategy to buy Israelite loyalty.
- The Jews did not take part in subsequent Egyptian rebellions against Persian rule. They were probably seen as disloyal by the Egyptians, as Persian allies.
- The Egyptians were likely offended by the sacrifice of lambs on Passover. Sheep were holy to the Egyptian god Khnum in the temple next door.
- Passover itself was probably offensive to Egyptians — it’s a celebration of their defeat and destruction at the hands of the Israelites and their God, after all. Josephus said it led to “bitter enmity”
Nirenberg posits that this could have been the beginning of a pro-Egyptian retelling of the Exodus story from an anti-Hebrew perspective and the beginning of a narrative of Jews as an enemy people.
Over the next two hundred years, that narrative developed and solidified. The story became that 1) the Jews were not redeemed but were driven out of Egypt; 2) Jewish practice is diametrically opposed to all other peoples, especially Egyptians and Greeks; 3) Jews are enemies of all gods; 4) wherever Jews rule it is brutal and tyrannical; and 5) Jews are misanthropes, the enemies of all mankind.
By the time of the Roman Empire, these ideas had become so accepted and widespread that by the second century of the common era, all of the Jews of Egypt were destroyed.
Sometimes forces sweep over a society, pulling upon and pressuring its people, its leaders, to descend into narrowness, to oppose, to scapegoat, to define out a certain other. And in these opening verses of the Book of Exodus you see how it works. It starts with behaving as if you do not know them, that they are essentially, fundamentally different from you, such that they are unknowable to you. Then you imagine that they are a threat in their size and number. “They are far too numerous for us,” Pharaoh says. That they are a fifth column, a potential danger in that they might be your enemy, or might side with foreign enemies. “In the event of war,” Pharaoh says, “they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” And then you oppress them, you try to stop them from growing, and eventually try to kill them. Eventually, you are throwing babies into a river to drown them. This basic pattern described in the first chapter of our parasha has been repeated again and again throughout human history. Always beginning with “we don’t know them. They are not like us.”
But just as there is contraction in the human experience, there is also expansion. The psalmist tells us in psalm 118: From the narrow place I called out to God, min ha meitzar karati Yah, and God answered me from the wide open space. Va’anani va merchav Yah”
On Monday we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote the following words sitting in a Birmingham jail. “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
The question of narrowness and openness, of contraction and expansion, is not just geopolitical. It is also personal and it is also communal, and it involves everyone. Not that long ago, we Jews habaim mitzrayma, we were in the narrow place. Many white Ashkenazi Jews imagined the Jewish world as basically white and Ashkenazi and did not see or know the true picture, the true breadth, the true diversity of the Jewish people. But Min hametzar karati Yah vaanani vamerchav Yah. Thank God our narrowness has expanded, and God has answered us from the wide open space. Thank God the invisibility and exclusion of Jews of color and Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews is ending. Thank God we are seeing the inescapable network of mutuality, the interrelated structure of reality. Thank God we are claiming and reclaiming and seeing and knowing and telling the stories and broadening the histories and acknowledging and counting who is actually here among our people on all of the continents of the Earth. And thank God we are making space for those who understand and believe their history and memory and roots to be tied to the Jewish people, to be able to find their way home. For in their journey home, we are all expanded.
Welcome home, Serach. Welcome home.