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Guest D’var Torah: Parashat Shemot

Amy Stein, a member of the Board of Directors of Congregation Bonai Shalom and Director of the Boulder Anti-Defamation League Office, shared the Dvar Torah she gave this Shabbat at Bonai.

Yadah, yadah, yadah—-before Seinfeld, there was Shemot

One my earliest memories is that of being in a room with my mother on many occasions. The room was full of people, talking passionately. There were few children, and there were quite a few men and women. That’s what my young mind could process. I had no understanding or ability to comprehend (nor care) that my mother and I were the only two people in the room with white skin and that the other people in the room were African-American. I had no concept of the acronym NAACP. Before I had been taught about social constructs like race, I was already learning about humanity, commonality and the importance of really knowing each other. For this, I certainly owe my mother much gratitude and praise.

There is much to be gleaned in this week’s parsha; Shemot tells the plight of the Children of Israel in Egypt, of Pharaoh’s cruelty, of Moshe’s birth and journey, and of G-d’s love for those who know Him.

This parsha, which is often lauded for its social justice principles, should also be a feminist manifesto! There are five women who deserve much praise for their commitment to G-d and His will and to doing what they knew to be just.

Firstly, we have midwives, Shifrah and Puah. After Pharaoh personally directed them to kill their fellow Hebrews’ male babies, they took a stand. Because they feared G-d and because it was wrong to commit infanticide, these brave women defied Pharoah’s decree. When summoned by him and made to account for the continued Hebrew male babies’ lives, the midwives explained that it was out of their control: the Hebrew women were just simply so much more skilled at giving birth than the Egyptian women and that by the time the midwives got to the births, it was done and they were just unable to kill the male babies.
How courageous! Shifrah and Puah, these brave pillars of social justice, refused to be a part of what was wrong and certainly had a hand in eventually allowing Moshe to be born and survive.

Of course, Pharaoh, not to be deterred, then decreed that all male babies (including Egyptian) should be thrown into the Nile. When Yocheved gave birth to Moshe, she felt she had no choice but to place the baby at three months old in a basket and set him afloat in the river. His sister, Miriam, faithfully watched and when Pharaoh’s daughter, the Princess Bisyah, miraculously wanted to save the baby, it was Miriam who offered to fetch a Hebrew wet nurse—Yocheved. Thanks to the Princess’s compassion, Miriam’s savvy and Yocheved’s innate mothering ability, Moshe was saved, allowed to grow, fed by his Jewish mother and raised in safety by Pharaoh’s daughter. These additional three women, like the midwives, should be lauded as heroes; without the courage and chutzpah of these five women, Moshe surely would not have gone on to lead the Jews out of bondage.

That said, there still exists the question of bondage in the first place. How, after Yosef’s legacy and life in Egypt, did it become a reality for his descendants to be so oppressed and enslaved? The parsha clearly articulates how: “Vayakam melech chadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yadah et Yosef.” “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Lo Yadah. He did not know. How easy, unfortunately, it can be to see those who we do not know as the other, as a threat, as oppress-able…even kill-able. This parsha seems to articulate what my friend Bill Cohen considers one of the first recordings of what we now refer to as anti-Semitism and certainly xenophobia, fear of the stranger. Pharaoh saw the Jews as a nation of others who were multiplying and could be a real threat if a war should occur, because he doubted their loyalty to Egypt.

Sound familiar? It should. We could review centuries of history and find too many example of this hateful, hurtful pattern occurring for our people and for many other peoples. This concept of knowing, “yadah,” is so important that is actually appears over 20 times in the first 14 chapters of the book of Exodus.

What responsibility, as the descendants of this amazing survival story, do we have? We must recognize xenophobia when it occurs, and we must address it. We must act proactively to break down barriers and get to know others, and sometimes a larger challenge, allow others to know us. In my almost decade with the Anti-Defamation League, I have proudly led dialogue groups between Jews and other groups, most recently with Palestinians and with Muslims. If anything has become very clear to me while doing this work, it is that knowing others is a choice. We have choices, every day, about how we comport ourselves and how we treat others. And we have choices about whether we really see our neighbors and whether we really get to know them and allow them to know us. If history has taught us anything, it should be that we cannot allow ourselves to be the “other,” and neither should have have a hand in making another group the “other.”

Today, Doris Small and friends are sponsoring Kiddush in memory of Martin and Doris’s brother, Aaron. Martin’s memory is truly a blessing for so many reasons, including what he taught us about the potential for human cruelty and for human compassion and knowing each other. Martin had a love for sharing his story, and we are all enriched by knowing his story, and re-telling it, so that people may continue to learn what can become of rendering anyone the “other.” Zichron l’bracha.

This parsha makes me think, too, of my dear friend, Howard Steinmetz, whose shloshim conclude in a day. Howard asked everyone to tell him their story. He was keenly interested in learning about people and where they came from and what they did, and anyone was privileged when Howard shared his story in return. He seemed to have an intrinsic understanding of why it was so important for people to not be insular and to connect with community. Among the many things I miss, and will continue to miss, about Howard was his constant interest in ADL’s work and his support of our efforts to bring people together in dialogue and understanding. As his wife Barb’s family suffered greatly because of the Holocaust, like Martin, there was a keen understanding of what people not knowing each other can lead to. Zichron l’bracha.

This parsha often falls closer to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Since this important event is only three weeks away, I’ll take the opportunity now to encourage you to participate in the City of Boulder’s MLK Day celebration. ADL has been representing the Jewish community in the planning and executing of this event for four years. This year on Monday, January 17th, our event, titled “Rally to Restore His Legacy,” will focus on Dr. King’s life and work with a rally and march on the Pearl Street Mall, followed by lunch, a human rights fair, and amazing speakers and performers at Boulder High School. Please attend and participate. Not only do Jews have an important legacy of our own in the Civil Rights Movement, but we also have a deep understanding of the challenges that continue. While we have come far and should celebrate the triumphs, we also lament the strides we have yet to make.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will soon be history. Passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by President Obama, the ending of this double standard in our military will surely have ripple effects for the rights of our LGBTQ community. Gay men and lesbians have been serving and dying for our country, and they will soon be able to be open about this one aspect of their identities. Let’s hope and work toward a swift rectification of any other areas in our society where our brothers and sisters do not have truly equal rights.

Also last week, the Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented, immigrant children willing to serve in the military or attend college a clear path to citizenship. Make no mistake—the xenophobia, racism and hate that has pervaded the debate on this issue is not that different from the way this week’s parsha begins. When we do not know someone or a group of people, it is, unfortunately, that much easier to deny them rights and treat them less-than-fairly. I hope our reading of this parsha now can be a reminder of the role we have to not allow anyone to go unknown, any group to go unknown, or anyone to be denied equal rights and access because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, national origin, or any identifying characteristic.

Remember, no less than 33 times our Torah commands us not to mistreat the ger, the stranger, for we know so well the soul of a stranger.

Yadah, yadah, yadah. How grateful I am for that very early memory of being a room with my mother and people who could never be strangers. How grateful I am that I was taught, from the very beginning, to be proud of who I am, what my family has gone through, and of being Jewish, but never at the expense of anyone else. As Jews, we all have the obligation to see our neighbors, to get to know them, and to allow them to know us. Let homogeneity not be the goal. We have differences, and that is okay. But we must, for humankind’s sake, find a way to see our commonality, for when we truly do that, the oppression of anyone will be the oppression of all of us and then will never be tolerated. We all should emulate the five female pillars of social justice in this parsha and work for the day when there are no others, no unknowns.

About Amy Stein

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3 comments

  1. Dear Amy,

    Thank you for this drashah on the sedra.

    I pray that the recognition of our common humanity with "the other" that you describe will extend universally in Israel as well.

    שבת שלום,

    Eve