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Dear Friends,

For the past few months the weekly Torah readings came from the Book of Genesis, which describes one understanding of the creation of the world, introduces us to the matriarchs and patriarchs and ends with the powerful story of Joseph. While it contains a good amount of family conflict and intrigue, the book comes to an end in a positive and uplifting way as Joseph is reunited with his family, and thanks to his elevated position, he is able to save his family and all of Egypt from the famine that has overtaken the region. In short, the Book of Genesis offers rich, powerful narratives and sets the stage for the ultimate unfolding of our people’s story.

In contrast to the family narratives of Genesis, the Book of Exodus, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, is a study in political climate change. It begins by telling us, “There arose a new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.” That statement alone indicates that we were entering into a new stage in the story of our people. After all, how could the ruler of a society that kept such fabulous records not know about Joseph and all he had done to benefit the Egyptian people? How could he ignore the deep connection that had developed between Joseph’s family and the Egyptian people to the point where he no longer even knew him?

A Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph, whether he made the conscious decision to ignore Joseph’s accomplishments or the subconscious decision to minimize them, was a clear and present danger—both to our people and society. That danger became reality as Pharoah quickly moved from “not knowing Joseph” to subjugating our people. And as his revisionist history and lies took hold, the Egyptian people also turned on our ancestors. It was an incremental process that ultimately resulted in terrible suffering.

Sadly, then as now people often see what they want to see and in the process ignore what is convenient to ignore. And as the Torah makes clear, over time the results of that process are often unsettling, if not dangerous.

This Shabbat marks the anniversary of January 6th, 2021. No matter who we voted for in the November 2020 election, our assumption in doing so was that our votes would count, and that the American democratic process was unassailable. Those assumptions were put to the test three years ago as a violent mob attempted to subvert our democracy and derail the election. Three years later, rather than securing our elections, getting as many people as possible to vote and advancing our democracy, we find ourselves first needing to combat the false narratives that have taken hold in so many corners of society.

January 6th is one illustration of the terrible dangers we face when we allow lies and distortions to take on a life of their own and begin to impact public opinion.

In an era in which our exposure to news is controlled not by objectivity, but rather by algorithm, we are all at constant risk of having the lenses through which we see the world distorted. Sadly, we are seeing that once again as people actively work to distort and manipulate the truth about the events of October 7th.

​​​​​​​This week alone I saw people online attempting to convince others that Jesus wasn’t Jewish, that the IDF was behind October 7th, and that Hamas is a peaceful liberation movement. Beyond the obvious ugliness of such falsehoods, such distortions make it more difficult to address conflicts and move toward a peaceful solution that benefits all the people of the region.

Like environmental climate change, political climate change is a slow and incremental process. It accrues over hundreds of days of unchallenged lies and over thousands of unchecked social media shares of misinformation and preposterous views.

Not knowing Joseph wasn’t an accident. Pharaoh made the deliberate decision to turn his eyes away from the past and to not acknowledge its significance. He did so for his own benefit and our community paid the price. That is a dynamic we see in our own day and recognizing that fact is the first step toward addressing it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen