This week we have moved on in our Torah reading cycle to the Book of Exodus, or Shemot. This parshah is particularly resonant in one of its earliest messages. The Book of Genesis tells us of Jacob and his sons, and how Joseph became one of the most powerful people in all of Egypt, even though he was a Jew. Upon the conclusion of Genesis, it almost seems as if the Jewish people should possibly let their guards down and be comfortable. Joseph died at the ripe old age of 110, and was even buried in Egypt. Generations of Joseph’s family remained in Egypt and lived out their days. It seems that this Jewish family was fully assimilated and accepted.
Fast forward to Shemot, and a glance at just how quickly the tables can turn against the Jewish people. The Torah tells us of a new King who arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. This new King decided that there were far too many Jews in the land of Egypt, saw them as a potential threat to the kingdom, eventually enslaved them, and forced them into lives of oppressive labor. The King became so paranoid regarding the Jewish people that he demanded that all newborn male Jewish babies be killed via drowning in the Nile. This story eventually leads us to Moses and his journey.
Does this ancient turn of events not ring just as true in modern times as it did during the time of Torah? Jews can assimilate, live comfortable and even highly successful lives, but there always exists the possibility that the dominant culture will turn toward scapegoating, violence, and even genocide when it comes to the Jews. All it took in Shemot was one King of Egypt and a willing populace. The King became wary of the Jewish people, he blamed the Jewish people, and he enslaved and killed the Jewish people. Adolph Hitler was wary of the Jewish people, he blamed the Jewish people, and he enslaved and killed the Jewish people. Once it happened in the Torah, and most recently (on a grand scale at least) it happened in Nazi Germany. One instance was thousands of years ago, the other, mere decades.
Even when the storms of prejudice and hatred toward the Jews seem to be at bay (they are not right now), we must never allow anyone to forget how swiftly the tides of society can turn to darkness. The Jews of Egypt were numerous and successful for a time; as were the Jews of Europe. One leader who expresses mistrust, aggression and hatred can, and has, changed the course of Jewish history. We cannot teach The Holocaust “too much” or be “too focused” on Jewish suffering as we educate our children. We as Jews simply cannot afford to become complacent or entirely comfortable. As I have written before, and as the Mishkan T’filah tells us: “…wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt.”
Is it over the top to figuratively sleep with one eye open as a people? I do not believe so. History and Torah seem to teach us that we should be accepting of the stranger, as we were once strangers, or perhaps always are, save Israel. The Torah also seems to give us fair warning; signalling to us the potential consequences of nonchalance. Joseph was alive to see the children of three generations of Ephraim in Egypt, and again, one King was all that was required to drastically alter the narrative.
The Jews of Egypt. The Jews of Europe. Looking back through history you can find so many more cases that I will not list comprehensively. If you are interested, look up what else happened on the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. It has nothing to do with Columbus, and everything to do with the expulsion of the Jewish people.
What do we take away from the Torah and from history? History is doomed to repeat itself unless we remain steadfast in our mission to prevent anyone from ever forgetting the horrors that have occurred across eras.The Jew is always living on the edge of assimilated society, and must remain friendly and welcoming, but vigilant. Always be teaching and be taught, and remember that any anti-Semitic moment, be it seemingly small or large, is momentous. We simply cannot afford to “let it slide” as a people. The slope is too slippery, and the repercussions far too dire. Be kind, but remain aware.
We are always one King away from one who knew not Joseph.