These ancient texts, they speak to me.
I have up-to-the-second information from around the world available at my fingertips at any second, but it’s the words written thousands of years ago that can delight and challenge me with their surprising relevance and resonance.
A delight. Last Friday, the 10th of Tevet, in the midst of a massive snowstorm, the page that students of the Daf Yomi the world over happened to be studying, one of 2,711 pages of the Talmud that they will study over the course of 7 years, just happened to tell the story of the great Hillel who was caught in a snowstorm- on a Friday in Tevet!
And, more seriously, a challenge. The story of a group of people who come to a foreign land, and who start to make the locals anxious about the demographic threat they pose. The government reacts by trying to enact laws to outsmart them and to prevent their increase, and the possibility of their forming a 5th column.
The very week we begin to read the book of Shemot, telling this story of the oppression of Jews in Egypt, a large group of asylum seekers/refugees/infiltrators– human beings- arrive in Jerusalem after a long trek to protest their incarceration without due process in an open prison in the desert. The prison is a result of the Israeli government trying to “outsmart” the immigrants, as well as the limitations set by the Supreme Court, in order to solve a problem of foreigners who they see as posing a demographic threat. The words of Pharaoh can fit seamlessly into much of the rhetoric heard supporting the harsh treatment of this group- “Let’s outsmart them! Otherwise, they will continue to increase, and join up with our enemies in the event of war” (Shemot 1:10).
The ancient texts are speaking to us. But what are they saying? That we are Pharaoh?
That’s too simplistic a reading for a complex text and a complex reality. The dilemma Israel faces is a real one; in truth, it is a global dilemma, which different countries confront and have confronted with varying degrees of intensity, each within the context of its own values, resources, and limitations. Israel’s status as a destination for non-Jewish asylum seekers is very new, only since the middle-2000s, reflecting both the tremendous success of the young state of Israel against all odds, and even more so the inhumane, atrocious conditions in so many countries that surround us. Alongside its prosperity, however, Israel still struggles with demographics that challenge its continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Given the newness of the issue, and Israel’s unique considerations, the evolving policies that Israel has implemented are without a doubt a far cry from the infanticide of Egypt of old, or even the brutal policies of modern day Egypt.
But not being as bad as Pharaoh, or as Egypt, is not enough. A recurring theme throughout the Torah is that the society we build is meant to be the complete antithesis to what we experienced in Egypt. The Torah commands us not to act as the Egyptians did (Vayikra 18:3), and over and over again reminds us to use our experience as immigrants and strangers in Egypt to inspire us to create a more moral society (Shemot 22:20, 23:9, Vayikra 19:34, Devarim 10:19). The seeds for the alternative society that the Torah envisions are planted in this week’s Parsha, and their sowing begins with the act of seeing. The cast of characters who first stand up to Pharaoh’s decrees are shocking when you think about it- first, the midwives, who were Egyptians, according to one reading, and a prince and princess of Egypt. What unites them is their ability to open their eyes and see the humanity and the suffering of the ‘other’. The midwives are told by Pharaoh that they should kill the males when they ‘see on the birthing stool’ (Shemot 1:16), but their seeing, apparently, is different than Pharaoh had hoped. Pharaoh’s daughter is described as seeing Moshe’s basket, and then again as ‘seeing him, the child’ (Shemot 2:5 and 6), and Moshe goes out to his brethren to ‘see in their suffering’ (Shemot 2:11).
The text here speaks directly to the most fundamental problem with Israel’s current refugee policy- its refusal to seriously evaluate the claims of asylum seekers. Israel has refused to open its eyes and look squarely at their suffering, choosing instead to employ only the Pharaonic calculus of security and demographic concerns. The voice of the heroes that we happen to encounter in the ancient text Jewish communities around the world will read from this week joins with the voices of the asylum seekers who marched to Jerusalem, challenging us, directing us, inspiring us to build a better society.