This week’s Torah portion brings us closer to our ancestors’ redemption from Egyptian slavery. As you may recall, their time in Egypt started quite well. Joseph had come to Egypt as an enslaved person but rose to become second only to Pharaoh. The king, in turn, gave him the power and authority to implement a plan to save enough food during years of abundance so they would be prepared to endure the seven-year-long famine that Pharaoh’s dreams suggested would soon arrive. Thanks to Joseph’s vision and leadership, when the famine finally came, there was enough food stored to sustain the Egyptians and Joseph’s family.
I imagine both the Egyptians and Joseph’s family were immensely grateful to Joseph for enabling them to endure difficult years. And yet, sometime later, the human tendency for short memories, the “what have you done for me lately” syndrome, kicked in. A new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt. He neither recognized nor appreciated Joseph’s actions to save the Egyptian people. Rather than celebrate the Israelites’ contribution to Egyptian society, the new Pharaoh saw them as a threat. Fearing they might become a fifth column, he turned the Egyptian people against the Israelites and used his immense power to at first marginalize and later subjugate the Israelites. Sadly, once Pharaoh had succeeded in dehumanizing Joseph’s decedents, his hateful action toward them became increasingly palatable to the Egyptian people. For their part, I imagine the Israelites were initially shocked that Pharaoh and the Egyptian people had turned on them so quickly. After all, by this time, they had been living in Egypt for generations and had, no doubt, become part of the fabric of Egyptian society. Egypt was their home until it wasn’t.
In this week’s portion our ancestors finally begin their journey to freedom. They have endured years of subjugation. They struggled under Pharaoh’s increasingly harsh measures intended to break their spirit. And yet, despite it all, they have survived. Battered and beleaguered, they find within themselves the strength to gather their belongings and begin the journey. As the portion states,
“The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years; at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of Adonai departed from the land of Egypt.”
That moment must have been one of great relief. The freedom that had seemed just out of reach for so many years was finally at hand. And yet, immediately after telling us that our ancestors were finally going to be free, the Torah states the following—
“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:48-49)
A short time later, it states,
“Do not mistreat or abuse the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
Our ancestors were just beginning their long journey to freedom, yet even before they were actually free, they were taught one of the foundational teachings of Judaism—to treat others with kindness and respect. Too often we see people doing the exact opposite today.
We see those who have achieved financial success do little to nothing to lift those who are impoverished.
We see those in power using their influence to consolidate authority rather than help lift others up.
We see those who have benefitted from social programs seeking to limit or cut the very programs that were their ladder to achievement.
In this portion, we are taught that this is fundamentally wrong. It is Hillul HaShem—a desecration of God’s name. For Torah wants us to understand that personal achievements give us the tools to do good in the world, not to turn inward and work to amass more, be it money, power or influence.
The Torah reflects an understanding that those who know the pain and struggle as a result of effort have a moral and religious obligation to turn that painful memory into good works and a commitment to helping those who are in need. That is particularly true today as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today we remember and mourn those murdered by the Nazi regime. But that is only part of the task set before us. For our memory of those dark days can, and should, compel us to help those who are in need today. It can and should move us to open our hearts to those who are in pain. And it can and should be a moral light that guides us to help fix this broken world.
Before Shabbat arrives, I want to encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the millions who were murdered and the silent complicity that allowed the Holocaust to occur. But then, before the sun sets, take that memory and use it as the motivation to do something to heal our world—be it a call to a friend who is in need, a donation to an organization that helps the vulnerable, or a commitment to volunteer at a social support organization next week. By doing so, we can all take the memory of the Shoah and use it to fuel our commitment to bring more love and goodness into the world.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen