Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Shemos. Never again is now!

This week we are beginning of the book of Exodus.  It has some profound lessons and saying that will be familiar to all of us.  One great example is “Let my people go!”  Moshe will be saying this phrase again and again in our narrative. The Exodus narrative begins, in this week’s parsha, as Moses is being commanded to fall before Pharaoh’s feet, to plead with him, “Let my people go!”

The wording and theme repeat themselves again and again from this week’s parsha unto the next week’s parsha, Parshas Vayeira. Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh on behalf of Am Yisrael to plead for Pharoah’s permission to leave Egypt and wander the desert to freedom. Even after the plagues befall Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Moses will go before Pharaoh five times, pleading, “Let my people go!” But with each plague, Pharaoh grows spiteful of Am Yisrael.

Again and again is the story of our people, the Jewish people. Our story in Exodus, retold in this week’s parsha, has set the tone for our people until today. Our story of again and again has repeated itself for thousands of years in our history. We suffered; we were victims. Again and again, ruthless tyrants have deprived us of our humanity, our freedom and our lives.

But we have also repeatedly stood up to pharaohs, tyrants and demagogues. Notice in our narrative, Moses and Aaron do not go before Pharaoh just one time or even two. They go before Pharaoh again and again. They were persistent. They did not give up. They endured and prevailed. This is also the story of our people. One side of our story cannot be complete without the other.

Again and again we find ourselves shackled in bondage and oppressed. But how and where does this story begin? How do we end up becoming victims again and again? Some question our choseness to this effect. Is this the gift of our choseness? To be loved by G-d but hated by all? The Yiddish poet Kadya Molowsky once wrote, in the wake of the Shoah, “G-d of Mercy, Choose –another people. We are tired of death, tired of corpses, we have no more prayers. […] Sanctify another land, Another Sinai. We have covered every field and stone With ashes and holiness. […] We have paid for each letter in your Commandments. […] Look on the peoples of the world, Let them have the prophecies and Holy Days”[1] of our people.

Others, such as Robert Wistrich, a critically acclaimed expert on the subject of anti-Semitism, has suggested that the story of again and again begins in Egypt with Exodus. Wistrich suggests in his book, Anti-Semitism, the Longest Hatred, that the origin of the most pervasive hatred, of anti-Semitism, begins with a prevailing belief in Egypt that was encapsulated in the third century BCE by the Egyptian priest, “Manetho, [… and] the later Egyptian-Greek Alexandrian Apion, who presented the Hebrews as a race of lepers who had been cast out from Egypt in the days of Moses.”[2]Wistrich describes Egyptians as the “first anti-Semitic polemicists of antiquity.” Egypt bore this hatred. Hellenization nursed it. Misguided Christianity and Islam cradled it. Modernity raised it unto adulthood.

Jewish theologians have tried to offer insight into this phenomenon as well. Holocaust theologians specifically try to discern how and why our people are subjected to anti-Semitic hatred again and again. As I commented earlier this year, Holocaust theologians such as Rabbi Kalman Shapiro and Zelig Kalmanovich tried to use Jewish concepts like Hester Panim, or the shyness of G-ds face from catastrophe, to describe how and why the story of again and again has repeated itself for our people.

I find the theological explanations for why anti-Semitism exists challenging to understand. These explanations do not see the wider picture. I find it difficult to connect to Molowsky, Kalmanovich or Shapiro’s explanations. I have long struggled to understand why a just and compassionate G-d would simply stand idle and watch as people are murdered. Wars, genocides and murders can be prevented, but such tasks require our work. We cannot play an inactive role in this duty. It is our sacred duty to side with people and organizations that work to protect human rights and victims while being a voice for peace. We must always strive for a better tomorrow. We need to play active roles in our world.

But again and again is also the story of our heroic fight against evil and of us standing up against the oppressor. A number of Jewish organizations adopted the aphorisms of Never again and never again is now as the catchphrases of social and political movements. The organizations were echoing the calls of our people heard well over a millennium. Only a few decades ago, the language was being used by Jewish organizations to call out the Soviet Union, to free its Jewish captives from bondage. Facing the real possibility that the Jews of the Soviet Union may be round-up and sent away, Jewish groups across the globe, with the Holocaust fresh in their collective memory, called out loudly in unison, “Never again!”

I believe this is the message of this week’s parsha. Moses and Aaron are commanded to go before Pharaoh by G-d, one time after the next. Even if they are dismissed, they must remain persistent. They cannot give up. They must take a stand against oppression and speak out. They are commanded to play an active role for our people. Because of them, we were ultimately redeemed from oppression.

Again and again, ruthless tyrants have deprived us of our humanity, our freedom and our lives. Again and again, we have stood up against the tyrants of our people to say, “Never again is now!” The moment we either throw up our hands to give up or become complacent to the presence of sinat hinam, of subhuman bondage, of slavery and of anti-Semitism, is the moment we have forgotten our narrative of again and again. The moment we turn to our children and see their eyes roll at the words Holocaust or the Freedom for Soviet Jewry movement is the moment we have failed this mission.

I fear my generation is failing in this holy endeavor. Anti-Semitism is again on the rise, and my generation is wholly unprepared for it. The battle against anti-Semitism is a battle we must all stand behind as Jews.

At the very end of my Year-in-Israel program, I ran into Natan Sharansky on the streets of Jerusalem.  Natan Sharansky is a hero of mine. He was a refusnik. He was held captive in the Soviet Union, denied exit to Israel. He was imprisoned for 9 years in Soviet gulags, because he would not be silenced by the Soviets about the oppression of its Jews. From prison, his wife Avital, began a campaign for her husband’s release under the banner of “Let my people go!”  From inside the soviet prisons, visitors smuggled Sharansky a book of Psalms, and he secretly began to write his memoir, Fear No Evil. In his memoir, Sharansky writes that “the path to liberation could not be found in denying our own roots while pursuing universal goals. On the contrary: we had to deepen our commitment, because only he who understands his own identity and has already become a free person can work effectively for the human rights of others.” When I saw him on the street in Jerusalem, I hugged him and thanked him. My wife’s family were all refuseniks. I told Sharansky, if not for his work, I would not be where I am standing today.

When we cease or limit our pursuit for the liberation of our people in body and soul from hatred and subhuman conditions, it will inevitably lead to a surge in anti-Semitism. When we forget what has happened to our people, we lose ourselves. It spells a recipe for complacency of the normalization of anti-Semitism.

Today is an opportunity for our future. We need to be clear with our community; We should know about the struggles of people. When we were pushed and when we pushed back.  We need to know about people like Natan Sharansky. If not for the works of the freedom of Soviet Jewry movement, it is possible their fate would have been much worse. They were saved.  We need to be talking about the persistence of our people. Our mass Exodus from Arab lands to the safety of Israel was another story that could have ended much differently. They were saved too.

Our narrative of again and again is something we need to be talking about. Any generations disconnect from our narrative must not be affirmed with a calming reassurance and presence. It alienates our victims and us from the truth of our narrative. Our narrative instead reads, as we have read today in Parshas Shemot, again and again a tyrant has risen up against us, and again and again we have prevailed. We have been called to take a stand for our people. We only prevail if we are persistent. We must not be complacent. We must not excuse anti-Semitism. We need an overwhelming voice to say that never again is now.

 —

[1] https://wanderinghebrew.com/2010/06/13/remembering-yiddish-poet-kadya-molodowsky-author-of-god-of-mercy/

[2] Wistrich, Robert. Antisemitism the Longest Hatred. Pantheon Books. New York. 1992. 5.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.
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