By Rabbi Jason Bonder
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with a list of those who made their way down to Egypt from Canaan.
While the Torah goes into detail about their dramatic stories back home, we know very little about what it was like for Jacob and his family once they immigrated. They presumably needed to learn a new language, learn new trades and begin the arduous process of building a new life for their descendants.
While we don’t see all their struggles in the text, we do learn that their efforts bore fruit. “But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:7) The generation of those who came to Egypt did the best they could to set up a bright future for their descendants.
Then that bright future suddenly turned dim. “A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) Perhaps by happenstance, and perhaps by willful ignorance, this new Pharaoh did not remember what Joseph did for Egypt. This Pharaoh felt threatened by the thriving community of Israelites instead of marveling at how they worked so hard to create a bright future. The new king of Egypt lacked the imagination to anticipate that there might be a baby born in that Israelite community who had a once-in-a-generation — even a once-in-history — influence on the world, as Moses did.
Imagine how lucky all of Egypt would have been if Pharaoh would have only embraced and supported the Israelites.
In November of this year, at a Central Bucks School Board meeting, there arose a man who knew not Joseph. Nor did he know much of anything at all. In his allotted three minutes, he spewed false, hateful, antisemitic language. Either by passive or intentional ignorance, this man did not know how much the Jewish people have positively contributed, and continue to contribute, to our United States of America.
That man, and this week’s portion, both serve as a warning to us. Things can change quickly. Antisemites can arise at any time from anywhere. Like the Israelites in the portion who continue in their faith, it is our job to fight back against this ignorance in all its forms.
I hope the following example can sustain us in this never-ending fight against hate.
In this week’s portion, I see a theological concept that both challenges me and serves as inspiration. The Torah tells us that “… The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:23-24).
What challenges me here is that God “remembered” the covenant. Had God somehow forgotten it? But as I contemplate that challenge, it leads me to realize something else. Perhaps there is a lesson meant for me in this perplexing verse. Perhaps we are the more likely party to forget the covenant. Before I point fingers at God, I should probably evaluate my own behavior.
Modern history has shown that we cannot wait for God to hear our cries. So it is crucial to remember that the covenant is only something we can rely on when we are also willing to act as equal partners. When we encounter a bigoted person spewing antisemitism, let us be the ones to remember our covenant with God and act accordingly. We can light Shabbat candles, celebrate Jewish holidays, participate in the Jewish community, read the Jewish Exponent or listen to a Jewish podcast. All these are equally important tools in the fight against antisemitism.
Let each antisemitic rant be a reminder to us that we must build up our Jewish institutions. May each diatribe remind us to double down on our commitment to an America that enabled — and enables — Jewish people to weave ourselves into the tapestry of this great nation.
Celebration of our traditions, building our institutions and strengthening our commitment to America is the perfect response to antisemitism. Our covenant with God is what has led us to be a light unto the nations for millennia.
When antisemites spew their nonsense, let us remember our covenant with our Creator and embrace our Judaism so that never again will God need to hear the groaning of our people.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia 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.