Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Vaera 5779
Read Rabbi Timoner’s d’var Torah on the upcoming Women’s March on Washington.
We find ourselves this week in the second parasha in the Book of Exodus. At the opening of last week’s Torah portion, we meet a new Pharaoh who doesn’t know Joseph. “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us,” he says. “They might side with our enemies.” So he oppresses us ruthlessly with labor that makes our lives bitter, but we continue to increase and spread out until the Egyptians come to dread us.
We are too numerous. We are too few.
We increase and spread out. We cluster together in insular neighborhoods.
We might side with the enemy. We might assimilate and infiltrate.
We are dreaded and feared. We are admired and envied.
In capitalist countries we are called communists. In communist countries we are called capitalists.
Among those calling for purity of the white race, some call us the ultimate race traitors. Among those calling for accountability for the institution of slavery, some call us the ultimate slave traders.
We are alternately the worst bleeding heart liberals and the worst human rights abusers.
We know these early verses of the Book of Exodus well. They lay the groundwork for our oppression as slaves in Egypt and our liberation. The Passover story is probably the best known of all the narratives in our Torah. It reminds us that antisemitism/anti-Judaism/anti-B’nei Yisrael is as old as we are. But this story we know so well also tends to cast us simplistically as victims, as the oppressed at the heart of a journey to freedom, allowing us to forget that Joseph was Pharaoh’s right hand man. That B’nei Yisrael had choice lands to live on while Joseph was living, because of that privilege. Again and again we’ve played this role in societies around the world, never owning or controlling the land or society, but serving as middlemen and -women to the powers that be, buffering those powers from the masses.
And so we were enslaved in Egypt, but before that we had some access to power and we had some relative privilege. And when we became oppressed, and we cried out, and G-d and Moses saved us, and when we were freed across that Sea of Reeds, we did not go out of Egypt alone, but in an erev rav, a mixed multitude, bringing a wave of oppressed people out of bondage with us.
And now, here we are, this many years later, in the land of opportunity if not the promised land, many of us trying to be on the side of freedom, to stand with the underdog, the stranger, the slave and the children of slaves, as the Passover story reminds us to do — identifying with the oppressed as Jews ought to do.
Confusingly, those of us with white skin also have white privilege, and the most visible faces of the Jewish people at the moment are Jared Kushner, Michael Cohen, Steven Miller, and Steve Mnuchin. We, like Joseph and his family, have access to power, and relative material well-being, and largely benefit from the forms of oppression of our time. Until we don’t. That’s the condition of the Jews in diaspora: our privilege is always conditional. It can be taken away at any time. And myths about us remain prevalent and powerful on both the right and the left. Myths that make us the enemy, the capitalists, the communists, the conspirators, the secretly powerful, the race traitors, the slave traders.
Everything has changed since the Book of Exodus. Nothing has changed since the Book of Exodus.
For many months now, I have been deeply troubled by what’s been happening with the Women’s March. The facts, as I can ascertain them, are that Tamika Mallory and to a lesser extent Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour (three of the four women chairing the march), have had an association with the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan. Mallory tweeted that Farrakhan is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) and attended a Farrakhan rally early last year where he said viciously antisemitic things. For those who might not know, Farrakhan uses Nazi-style language about Jews, such as that Jews are termites, Jews are Satanic, Jews are a dark force controlling the media, Jews have tentacles they wrap around Washington. When Mallory was asked to denounce his words, and she did not immediately do so, this brought on vicious attacks by Jews, including vile racist language and many death threats. Most recently, Mallory and Perez were accused of saying terribly antisemitic things by some of the women present at the early Women’s March organizing meetings, including the canard that Jews were a major force behind the slave trade. They deny having said this.
For many months, I wished that I could be in conversation with these women leaders, with a goal of shifting the intractable and highly destructive conflict. Two months ago I got just such an opportunity. I was invited by Academy-Award-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg to participate in a dialogue with Tamika Mallory on camera for a documentary about the march. I agreed. Tamika came to my office here at CBE one evening in November, and we were in dialogue for three hours. I am not permitted to speak about the content of the film until it is released, but I can say that I am very glad that I participated in that dialogue and have continued to be in dialogue with Tamika since.
What I can say from this experience is that we Jews who see our Judaism and Jewish identity as centered in liberating the oppressed — in loving the stranger, in upholding the rights of the poor, in pursuing justice for all — we are going to repeatedly find ourselves in coalition with people who are antisemitic. Who have absorbed antisemitic canards as truth. Who, if they see themselves as siding with all of the oppressed of the world, may state positions of anti-Zionism and critique of Israel that are antisemitic. Who, if they are Black, may not know many Jews at all, or may have seen Jews primarily as the landlord, or the real estate developer who is displacing their community. Like Joseph who collected all the grain of the Egyptians, like the tax collectors and merchants of medieval Europe, we are again the middlemen, and viewed from below as the oppressor.
If, when we hear or see antisemitism, we walk away from the coalition, or we attack full force with a goal to destroy the anti-Semite, we isolate ourselves further, burn bridges that we need for our own well-being, and give up our place in the coalition that stands for our values. It is not clear how this helps us, or anyone.
If we, in an effort at loyalty to the other, in empathy for the oppressed, pretend we didn’t hear the antisemitism, forgive it without confronting it, tell ourselves and others it’s unimportant compared to the real forms of injustice and oppression that must be addressed, we are not doing anyone any favors. We are not actually helping the cause of freedom or of justice. Because any agenda for freedom that dehumanizes any group of people is incoherent and morally unsound. Because antisemitism is classic scapegoating. It is a tried and true tactic by those in power to redirect legitimate claims of injustice away from the true sources of that injustice and onto the Jewish people instead. And because, as the founders of the Women’s March can now attest, unaddressed antisemitism will come back to bite you, and it will take you down. Which is to the delight of the powers that be, who are the main beneficiaries of internecine warfare among the resistance.
So…. how to do this? How to stay in conversation and coalition without ever letting antisemitism be acceptable or go unaddressed? How to teach and deprogram those who’ve swallowed antisemitic stereotypes and lies, while also truly standing as partners in dismantling systemic racism and other forms of oppression, and being aware and willing to learn about our own white privilege (for those of us who have it)? This is not easy, yet it is what we are called to do in this moment. It’s what we must do in this moment – we must stay in it.
I have been silent about the Women’s March for many months, as I agonized about it privately, sought to do no harm, and hoped that my quiet dialogue would be fruitful. Meanwhile, many members of this congregation have asked me about what we are doing as CBE for the Women’s March. Many of you want to march. The New York march is too complicated, as there are now three competing and conflicting marches happening at the same time. I do not know how to participate in a constructive way. People are working to untangle it, but time is running out. However, I’m happy to announce that a Jewish women’s contingent has been formed for the Washington DC march. I myself cannot be there because I have two b’nei mitzvah that morning, but CBE members are organizing a bus to participate. This contingent will march under banners that proclaim Jewish pride and Jewish values. The contingent will be clear that it stands against antisemitism and for the equality of all women (as the Women’s March unity principles now declare), and it will make the statement with its presence that Jewish women have as much right as anyone else to march for our shared values. If you are interested in participating or helping to organize, please speak to me after services or email me this week.
This is how we live our challenging calling: to stand right in the breach with a message of freedom for all and to not let anyone get left out of that vision, including us.
This week in the Torah, in parashat Vaera, the process of liberation is underway. Moses goes to Pharaoh with the demand: Let my people go. But first, G-d goes to Moses and says, “I was known by your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai. I was not known to them as Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey.” (Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey is the Jewish people’s intimate name for G-d, for which we say Adonai.)
What does this mean? Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator explains that El Shaddai is the quality of G-d that is the creative force of the universe. Rashi explains that Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, in contrast, is the aspect of God that keeps promises. In the time of the ancestors, G-d promised that G-d would free the people from slavery. But only now, in the time of Moses, can G-d show the quality of keeping the faith, of being trustworthy. How apt for this very challenge we find ourselves in: the challenge of believing that liberation is still possible even when it seems like everything is falling apart. The challenge of being in coalition with people when our trust is shaken. Of having to look across differences of culture and background and narrative, and decide that we’re going to try to build bridges of trust, despite it all, relationships in which we keep the faith with one another and stay true to our word, in which we are determined to foster bonds of mutual respect. This is the aspect of God that shows up this week in Torah, just when the people need it most.
Remember, even in our doubts, even with our limitations and the limitations of others, we are not alone. We are accompanied by this Source of All Creation, the Source of Being and Becoming, the Source of All That Is and All That Will Be. We, and a whole lot of other people, have a sea to cross to freedom. Together.