We now find ourselves reading the weekly Torah portions in synagogue which recount the story of Jewish slavery in Egypt. There is a gripping talmudic teaching (Sotah 11a) which posits that there were three gentile advisors to the Pharaoh as he devised his final solution for torturing the Jews. They were Balaam, Jethro and Job. Balaam counseled Pharaoh to proceed with eliminating the Jews. This endeavor, as well as his later attempt at cursing the Jewish people, fails and he is humiliated as a result. Jethro counsels Pharaoh to stop annihilating the Jews and he is therefore forced to flee for his life. His end is propitious though — he becomes the father-in-law of the great prophet Moses and he is also rewarded with an entire Torah portion named for him memorializing his teachings about no less a subject than — proper judgment.
But the third advisor — Job — remains silent. And we all know what happens to Job. In fact, Bible scholars for every generation have sought explanations for the unspeakable suffering he is subjected to. What could have been so egregious a sin as to merit the torment of losing everything including his children, wealth, health and then to be snubbed by his friends as well? This talmudic teaching comes to answer this question: he deserved calamity because he knew better, but still remained silent. Another commentary points out that during his lifetime he only prayed for the welfare of his own family — but never bothered to pray for anyone else.
It is hardly relevant whether or not Job was an actual historical figure and if so if he even lived in the time of the Jewish enslavement in Egypt — both subjects of debate in classical Jewish texts. The point of the Torah’s inclusion of these morality tales is clear: the price of silence is dire.
As Jews, we should internalize these biblical lessons. The lesson of the three advisors above is reflective of the pattern of Jewish history: there are always those who seek to destroy us but there are also always those who will stand up for us, even at the risk of their own lives. And there are still others who will take us in when we are forced to flee. We ran from expulsions and progroms to safer havens throughout our history. We ran from the Holocaust to these very American shores as did two of my own grandparents. So why don’t you — and an alarming number of my coreligionists — not understand clearly what the price of our silence is now when the Oval Office has issued a ban against other refugees? If we partook of these privileges dare we endorse the slamming of the door shut on any other immigrants, foreigners or refugees — whom we once were?
Some will argue that we focus inward and seek to protect ourselves from an ever-looming threat of the gentile world because the echo of the Holocaust still rings loudly in our collective hearing. Many Jews still today are haunted by the screams of our grandparents and parents whose nightmares from concentration camps still awaken them at night. Thus we cry that we will never forget. But the point of suffering, and of our very enslavement in Egypt as the Torah points out exhaustively, is to sensitize us to the suffering of others. Not heeding the cry of others whose nightmares now rage as they flee is not Jewish — it is cruel. And it defies the lessons of Jewish history.
There is another biblical advisor to royalty whose words should be carefully heeded as well. In the Purim Megillah when Queen Esther hears that the annihilation of the Jews has been decreed via Executive Order as counseled by the anti-Semitic royal advisor Haman, she did nothing to intervene on their behalf. But Mordechai, her uncle and closest advisor, admonishes her with words that are still chilling today: “If you remain silent at this time, rescue and recovery will come to the Jews from someplace else — but you and your father’s entire house, will be lost. And who knows if it not for this very reason why you entered into the palace?” (Esther 4:14) The message is threefold: you should not feel safe even while residing in the palace itself. Additionally, by turning a deaf ear to the cries outside the palace walls, you will not only lose out on the opportunity to prevent this tyranny from occurring but you and your father’s entire house will be destroyed as a result. And lastly, perhaps this is the very reason why you find yourself in a position of power altogether — to save others.
Are we Jews safe now because we have you as our representative in the highest office of the land? Apparently not. This is borne out by the fact that the executive ban on refugees was decreed on Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the White House did not acknowledge that the Holocaust was designed to be a final solution to eliminate the Jews. Robbing us of the particulars of our own persecution story can be seen as the beginning of the next campaign to erase our memory from the face of the earth. It is the peddling of “alternative facts” that ultimately turn into the revisionist history of a controlling demagogue. And it is anti-Semitism in its purest form.
But this is not about the Jews who have been slapped however foreboding that is. It is the Muslim community which has been slapped by this country now. And precisely because of our history of persecution, we, the Jews, must know better than to merely stand idly by in the face of it no matter whom it is leveraged against.
Are you delivering the help to these “others”? No. But if you, the internal advisors, or our democratically elected officials, do not fulfill the job of standing against the rise of tyranny then we, the people, will. The protest marches rage loudly all about you.
And who knows — perhaps this is the very reason why you ascended to this position of influence to begin with. Clearly, you are aware of the fact that millions of people wonder how it is that you find yourselves there now. We are horrified and we are scared — everything we stand for is at stake. And we are left wondering what good can come out of this situation? Perhaps you can answer that question for all of us. But you would do well to remember that your father is actually a president — and not in fact a king.
Therefore, heed the call to action and be the “light unto the nations” that God calls upon the Jews to be [Isaiah 42:6]. Because if not, the Bible has informed us that it will bring disgrace and decimation as promised Esther and her father’s house for her inaction, or misery as brought on Job and his family for his silence. It is clear that history will not forgive or forget the silence of those who should know better.
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