By Rabbi Janine Jankovitz
President Joe Biden has spent a great deal of time over the past few months speaking on the topic of unity. His message is clear; these past four years have divided our country more than ever before and his intended mission in office will be to mend our broken country and bring us together once again. I have heard from many people this shared hope.
As a rabbi, I generally believe in the power of mending disagreements and working toward healing. I have witnessed the miraculous transformation this kind of healing can have on a person, on a family and on a community.
But there is also a counterargument to the call for unity. Should the Democratic Party be responsible for mending the past four years that were led by an unhinged, narcissistic bully?
The former president was supported by a party that ensured he was able to get into the Oval Office and remain there for four years. They were cowards or, even worse, unbothered by his divisive rantings and dangerous disregard for truth. Every person who turned a blind eye or answered “no comment” over the past four years is responsible for what culminated in the storming of our nation’s Capitol and the death of five people.
Why should the newly elected administration spend its first year in office trying to mend our nation’s sense of unity when surely their time is more needed to fix the problems that have resulted due to the last administration’s refusal to take responsibility?
Unity is not something we can achieve without addressing the reasons for the disruption. Until we fix the desperate situation we find ourselves in today we can’t move forward as one unit. We are desperate for help — help for growing unemployment and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots; for the disenfranchised students who, without the safety net families of more means have, are falling further and further behind in school; and for a mass vaccination program and mask mandates. These concerns are a part of Biden’s plan, so why not just focus on those enormous tasks?
Calls for unity put an unjust onus on disenfranchised and vulnerable people. How can we ask the people who have suffered the most over the last four years to work toward forgiving and uniting with their oppressors? How can we ask Jews who witnessed images of rioters proudly wearing T-shirts with slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “Six Million Wasn’t Enough” to understand their oppressors?
How can we ask those who have lost their family members and friends to this pandemic due to gross political negligence to understand? How can we ask Black and brown people who have suffered the most under the hands of a militarized police force, who have witnessed their loved ones killed at the hands of police to forgive? How can we ask women and LGBTQ+ people to forgive those who try to remove their rights and threaten their safety?
This week in Beshalach we read the epic moment of our people’s liberation from slavery. Pharaoh has a change of heart and sends his army after the Israelites. The Sea of Reeds opens and once the Israelites cross over dry land, G-d closes the waters over the Egyptians. When the people see what has happened they rejoice. Our tradition teaches that at this moment the ministering angels wished to join in with the Israelites and sing their song of freedom but G-d rebukes the angels, saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea and you would utter song in My presence?” Just as we spill our wine at the seder for each of the 10 plagues, we are taught that the destruction of life is no celebration, even when it seems to us that the victims deserve it.
However, this doesn’t mean we are commanded to forgive our oppressors. G-d never commands the Israelites to forgive the Egyptians for the hundreds of years of slavery. Instead, G-d commands that we remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Remember that we were once slaves oppressed by the hands of a powerful pharaoh. Remember our suffering so that we may never, ever become like our oppressors, even when we finally have the power to do so.
Instead of asking for us to unify with those who sought to destroy us, let us move forward remembering what oppression feels like. Let us instead spend our energy and resources fighting for more justice for those who remain oppressed. The fight for justice is not over with the change of administration. The very fact that our civil liberties are up for debate every four years shows how broken our country’s political system is.
May we remember always that we were once strangers, and may we vow that we will never become like our oppressors.
Rabbi Janine Jankovitz is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall and grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.