A New King Arose in Egypt: Why I am Not Sitting Shiva

I will share with you that all week I’ve had the impulse to simply preach on the Torah portion of the week, and steer clear of the topical events of the day. But as I considered the gravity of this period in our nation’s consciousness, and watched the inauguration events today, including the swearing in of our new elected leader, President Donald Trump, I am compelled to weigh in.

My son and I talked about it last night, and discussed just how much should a rabbi’s sermon be about the modern events in our country and how much should remain rooted in tradition? Of course, we agreed that sometimes it is unavoidable that it is both. And, frankly, it is my job to help our community see the world through the lens of Torah. And perhaps, just maybe, the Torah can give us some light at a time when many see darkness.

Have you seen my little innocuous post on Facebook yesterday? The one that read, “Interesting time to be the rabbi who is giving tomorrow night’s Shabbat sermon on Inauguration Day. Rob Nosanchuk, is it too late to switch up the preaching schedule?

That post elicited many, many comments, revealing the anger, angst, and anxiety that many in our community have been experiencing in anticipation of this inauguration day. For some of you it was a true impending sense of doom realized in the swearing in of our 45th president. For others, the Trump election win was an affirmation that business as usual was no longer going to stand, and that a fresh new approach was a good thing for our country.

Still, I regularly hear from community friends who are crestfallen and heartbroken. Many are feeling unmoored. To be candid, it feels a lot like shiva out there – but not to me.

Let me explain.

As much as I am disgusted by the demonizing rhetoric of our new president, and as much as I have winced each time he has put down the disabled, labeled Mexicans as rapists; each time he has torn down Muslims, dismissed the basic rights of the immigrant; each time he has used misogyny and made it okay to mock, grope, and alienate others, I still will not sit shiva.

I will not sit shiva because it is not the Jewish way. Yes, we observe mourning rituals as Jews for the destruction of the temple, for calamity and tragedy. We observe mourning rituals for loved ones who have died; for the senseless deaths of the Six Million and those who fought for them. But we don’t observe mourning rituals for bluster and boasting – and cabinet picks. We don’t observe mourning rituals because a bully pushes people around, or for expectations unmet, or because our candidate did not win.

This is not to say we can’t be sad or even devastated…that is evident. Yes, there must be time for reflective discernment and to acknowledge emotional discord.

But it is also a time for resilience; to summon up our collective resources as Jews have been doing for generations. Friends, the ability to imagine possibility and redemption built on resilience is simply in our Jewish DNA!

We learn about resilience from this very week’s Torah portion. How fitting that the first chapter of Exodus includes the following verse:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph[1].

Indeed, remember when Joseph was a household name, and basically the biggest deal in ancient Egypt? He was in effect chosen to be Vice Pharaoh, and harnessed enormous power. But in our scriptural passage this week, it’s as if that era never happened. All the progress the Hebrews imagined that would extend out into the future was gone. One Torah commentator (Sforno) even said that maybe the new Pharaoh never consulted the historical records[2].

But that’s not the Jewish way; we know our past.

As the eminent Jewish educator, Avraham Infeld, said, “Jews don’t have history, they have memory…History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.”[3]

Unlike the new pharaoh in our Torah portion this week, we are a people of memory…it’s what makes us take pause when we see signs of the past potentially repeating itself, and it’s what gives us hope, because we can look back, and use our memory to draw from, to remind us of who we are and what we can be.

Look at Shifra and Puah, the two named Hebrew midwives in the Torah who risked their lives after that new pharaoh said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women look at the birth stool; if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live[4].” But the Midwives, fearing only God, did not do accede to the king’s demand; they let the boys live.

Indeed, the midwives did not give in to fear of a leader who frightened them; they resisted, fiercely, and let their faith carry them.

But there is another point that we should keep fresh in our minds. While Shifra and Puah worked in the shadows, we must also look to Moses, who operated in the public sphere. It was Moses, who left his safe and private world of Pharaoh’s palace, and represented the totality of his people to bring them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. But, as we know, it was not easy for Moses. He didn’t want the job, refusing God at first. Moses could have led a comfortable life in the suburbs of the Fertile Crescent, but was called for a different purpose.

Moses had the sacred obligation to go out to the people, ironically, he did not know! He was raised in the palace by Pharaoh’s wife, not amongst his people! To complicate matters, the Israelites were, like humanity tends to be, a diverse group: everyone from the water-drawer to the woodchopper. Our tradition informs us that an “erev rav”, a mixed multitude[5], came out of Egypt with the Israelites. YET Moses had a divine obligation to lead them ALL.

Imagine the tall task he had. All the personalities, temperaments. Imagine the varied backgrounds of each Hebrew man and woman, and how the past informed who they were, what they believed, and who they could trust. You could understand why Moses never wanted the job in the first place! I bet Moses saw them all, and wondered if they would ever all get along and make it to that Promised Land. Even so, our text suggests that Moses recognized the humanity of all the Israelites and led them all.

In past months, the divide in this country has been growing.

Eric Fingerhut, the President and CEO of Hillel International, the Jewish presence on college campuses, talks about the disunity today in a recently published article[6]. He raises up the famous debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai over the interpretation of a particular point in Jewish law. The disagreement lasted 3 years. Finally, a bat kol – a heavenly voice – came forth from above and proclaimed, “eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayyim” (Both teachings are the words of the living God). The story could end there…but God chimed in again, asserting that “the law is in agreement with the school of Hillel.[7]

So much for a happy ending to that story!

Why did the school of Hillel win the agreement? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers an interpretation, lifting up the humility of Hillel. He writes, “The unwillingness of the (school of Shammai) to study and consider the views (of the school of Hillel) might explain why they later grew violent in their opposition…Associating only with like-minded people, reinforcing one another’s views without ever hearing a credible exposition of opposing views, might have caused them to think that one who thought differently from them were not only wrong, but evil.[8]

We ALL need to follow the example of Hillel, who learned from out teacher, Moses. We ALL need to hear each other’s views – even if they are anathema to our own. We have, I would argue, an obligation to do so. Just as we must stand up for what is right, like Shifra and Pu’ah, we must also lead like Moses, and listen and learn like Hillel.

Indeed, Hillel won the overwhelming majority of arguments with Shammai, proving that Hillel’s decency, his way of interacting with others was exemplary. Another famous Hillel and Shammai debate featured a prospective convert to Judaism coming to Shammai and demanded that he teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai angrily sent him away.

Next, the seeker visits Hillel and asked the same question, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot”. Hillel the replies, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it![9] In this story we see Hillel’s humility. He understands the big picture. While the convert’s expectations are outsized, Hillel sees an opportunity to teach.

These stories in the Jewish vault of memory are there for us to consult, to learn from, and to employ as we move forward. We are a people of memory, and much of that memory is painful. Much of it gives us pause as we consider the vulnerable state of our nation. We uniquely understand the winding path of what it means to be a Jew, and in that position we also share a collective concern for those others (people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, people who identify as Lesbian, Bi, Gay, Transgender, non-binary, and questioning) whose recent hard-won freedoms feel shaky at the moment. As people of memory, we know all too well the dangers of tyranny, for every Passover we acknowledge that we were slaves in Egypt.

Let us articulate for ourselves a vision of a world redeemed with us driving that vision. Let us use our grit like Shifra and Puah to deliver a nation worth loving, and living in. Let us lead like Moses to include ALL people in our community, Let us remember the lessons of Hillel, remember to disagree agreeably.

At the beginning of this sermon, I noticed that while it feels like shiva, I’m not sitting shiva.

Why I am not sitting Shiva?

  • Because I believe in the resiliency of our nation, the peaceful transition of power, and a democracy that demands our participation and investment in this county.
  • I am not sitting Shiva because I do not believe that every Trump supporter believes his hateful rhetoric or is bigoted.
  • I am not sitting Shiva because I believe in the power of Jewish memory, and that every time I light those two Shabbat candles I am reminded of our past and the importance of tending to our future.
  • I am not sitting shiva because as people of memory, we must evoke the courage of Shifra and Puah, the savvy of Moses’s leadership, and the wisdom of Hillel.
  • I am not sitting Shiva because I believe in the power of organizing a diverse populace of Jews and others (even with vastly different temperaments and backgrounds) who wish to improve our society.
  • I am not sitting Shiva because I believe in every member of this community, regardless of how you voted. I deeply believe in the power of a faith community and the prospect of acting together for the common good. It is a core principle for me.

I conclude with a prayer for our country, that is found in our prayer books, because as American Jews, we pray for our government as well as our people. May it be God’s will.

Prayer for our Country[10]

God of holiness, we hear Your message: Justice, justice shall you pursue. God of freedom, we hear Your charge: Proclaim liberty throughout the land. Inspire us through Your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy. Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish. Let each of us be an advocate for justice, an activist for liberty, a defender of dignity. And let us champion the values that make our nation a haven for the persecuted, a beacon of hope among the nations.

May our actions reflect compassion for all people, within our borders and abroad. May our leaders and officials embody the vision of our founders: to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

We pray for courage and conscience as we aim to support our country’s highest values and aspirations: the hard-won rights that define us as a people, the responsibilities that they entail.

We pray for all who serve our country with selfless devotion — in peace and in war, from fields of battle to clinics and classrooms, from government to the grassroots: all those whose noble deeds and sacrifice benefit our nation and our world.

We are grateful for the rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that our founders ascribed to You, our Creator. We pray for their wisdom and moral strength, that we may be guardians of these rights for ourselves and for the sake of all people, now and forever.

[1] Exodus 1:8

[2] http://rockwernms.weebly.com/uploads/2/0/3/6/20368573/mikraot_gedolotenglish_shemot_16-10.pdf

[3] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/our-life-based-on-a-true-story/#

[4] Exodus 1:19

[5] Exodus 12:38

[6] http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/lessons-from-hillel-and-shammai-on-engaging-a-divided-community/

[7] Eruvim 13b

[8] http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/lessons-from-hillel-and-shammai-on-engaging-a-divided-community/

[9] Shabbat 31a

[10] Mishkan HaNefesh