Groups come together based upon either ‘common humanity’ or ‘common enemies’. When we collect around our common humanity, inspiring achievements follow. But when people bond to demonize others, alas, cruel inhumanity often follows.
On this fourth anniversary of murderous attack on a Paris supermarket, a new anti-government yellow-vest movement is becoming hospitable to anti-semitism. New York Times editor Bari Weiss describes a ‘three-headed anti-semitic dragon’ now facing European Jewry made up of violent threats from radicalized youth, moral threats from the hard-left, and political threats from the hard-right.
A friend asked me this week, “What can we do about all of the anti-anti-Semitism out there?” It took me a couple of days to offer an answer. “Be true to our best as Jews” I finally suggested. “In a world awash with false claims, sharpening what’s true about Jews and Judaism is our best response.”
Our portion of Torah this week offers a primer on how to do so. It contains the actual Exodus from Egypt. We begin as slaves. God’s dramatic intervention liberates us. Prior to the final, fatal plague, education becomes central to the Seder. Curiosity encourages questions like “What do you mean by this rite?” and “What does this mean?” (Ex. 12:26,13:14). Learning and educational growth are thus baked into our Festival of unleavened bread. A magisterial new biography on the life of Frederick Douglas brings forth his telling words. “Education and Slavery were incompatible with each other” Douglas said in 1845. Ten years earlier he wrote, “Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves”. This explains why a surprising genealogy makes an appearance (Ex. 6:14-26) when the contest between Moses and Pharaoh begins. Deepening rootedness and educational growth signal the end of slavery.
Against the headwinds of hatred, our task is sharpen our sense of self. We must resist temptations to disfigure our faith. Recent examples of extremist Jewish efforts to do so are forcefully condemned this week by Rabbi Benny Lau.
The Exodus is the greatest ‘common humanity’ story ever told. It serves to inspire people to hope, to freedom’s responsibilities, to standing with the stranger, and to standing up for the powerless. As my friend responded this week, “When we are better Jews we are better human beings.”
As we deepen our roots, nourish our authentic Jewish growth, may we elevate to our higher vocation, by taking our founding lessons personally (“Because of what God did for me” (Ex. 13:8)) in 2019.