The Origins of Anti-Semitism

21 TEVET 5779 // DECEMBER 28, 2018

At the beginning of the book of Bereisheet/Genesis,
the world is created.
At the beginning of this week’s newest book Shemot/Exodus,
A people are born.

In the beginning of our peoplehood,
we also experience the origins of anti-Semitism.
Today’s parashah outlines the parameters
of how anti-Semitism functions, even still today.
This week’s Torah portion is the origin story
of how our people got pushed down
and how we began to pick ourselves back up again.

Gen. 1:7-11

וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃
But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.

הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙

וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

וַיָּשִׂ֤ימוּ עָלָיו֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מִסִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן עַנֹּת֖וֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־רַעַמְסֵֽס׃
So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.”

Some 3500 years ago,
in our origin story of who we are,
already, there are those in power
that seek to quash us.
This Pharaoh was worried
about how we were growing numerous.
If with our large numbers, Pharaoh questioned,
we opted to fight alongside Egypt’s enemies,
together we might defeat the great Egyptian army.

There is no real substance to Pharaoh’s argument.
It was never in question that we were going to join a foreign army
and fight against our own neighbours.
Yet, we are made to be seen as a real threat
where no real threat exists.
And so we are caught in the middle of Egyptian society.
If this story sounds familiar,
it’s because anti-Semitism has played out
across continents and millenia
in this same way.

From the first century C.E. until the 20th century,
Jews have rarely been in full positions of power.
Yet just as we have never been landowners or kings of states,
neither have we been—for the most part—
among the poorest and destitute.
We have, generally speaking, been in the middle of society,
across centuries where a middle class did not exist.
We have been living among people and between classes,
and we have been made to feel the squeeze between rich and poor.
We have been scapegoated in the past,
blamed for the collapse of entire societies and their economies,
with no substance to the argument.

This is precisely how Moses functioned.
He was caught in the middle.
He knew Egyptian royalty,
had lived in its palace.
But he was also an Israelite.
He was in a position smack dab in the middle like no other.

This is quite apparent when, in our parashah,
Moses finds an Egyptian taskmaster torturing an Israelite,
and so he himself, in turn, kills the Egyptian.

The Torah says:
“Moses looked this way and that way, – vayifen ko va’cho
– and when he saw there was no man (ish),
he killed the Egyptian.” (Exodus 2:12)
We often here see Moses in a bad light.
As my colleague and friend Rabbi Ari Isenberg-Grzeda writes:
“Taken literally, it seems that Moshe
looked to see if anyone was watching.
With the coast clear, Moshe defends the Israelite.
But this interpretation is difficult because in the midst of a busy working field, it’s doubtful that no one was there.”
(Shemot, D’var Torah, Temple Israel Center, 2016)

Rabbi Isenber-Grzeda goes on to quote two commentators:
“Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabalah, a 19th century commentator,
reads it differently.
Moshe paused and looked to see
whether another Hebrew would care enough
or have the ability while in a state of bondage
to save his own brother.”
He looks for another man to help.

“The Netziv, in his 18th Century work Ha’emek Davar,
has another take.
In his view, Moshe, seeing a Hebrew beaten,
hesitated for a moment before acting
and looked first to see if any Egyptian
would stand up for the Israelite…

According to these commentaries,
Moshe’s pause, his glancing in both directions,
was not because he was attempting to act furtively,
without detection;
rather, to see first if someone else
would be there to administer justice.”

According to these commentaries,
when faced with injustice and these origins of anti-Semitism,
Moshe looked for support.
He looked for allies.
He looks for an Israelite,
but there, crushed under the blow of struggle,
they were too disempowered to do anything.
Then, he looks for an Egyptian to help,
and no one comes forward.

When faced with any great threat to our lives,
we can freeze and do nothing;
we can flee and run away from the issue;
or we can fight.

All of these instincts are captured within Moshe.
He looks this way and that way:
He freezes for a moment.
He considers fleeing.
And then he decides…he will fight.

If you like, you can question the strategy
Moshe used to stop anti-Semitism—
that is, killing an Egyptian—
but don’t question Moshe’s motive.
He was in it to combat the injustice he saw around him.

All of these instincts are within each of us too.
When faced with any form of existential adversity,
we can freeze, flee or fight.

Today, Jews remain
the single most targeted religious group in the U.S.
and the numbers are only creeping upward
in the climate we live under.

Our parashah reminds us that this is nothing new.
This goes back to the foundation of our peoplehood.
Anti-Semitism is cyclical.
In the words of thinker Cherie Brown:
“What is happening now (in 2018) is NOT significantly different
than how the dynamics of anti Semitism have functioned for centuries.”
I might add to her words…millenia.

It is our job, our tafkid, to remind others of this reality.
And that we are not going away,
and that our Judaism and our belonging to this people
are meaningful parts of who we are.

And it is also our tafkid to look for allies.
Like Moshe, we must look among ourselves.
We Jews have a lot of opinions.
We have a range of political orientations,
and even have different analyses and solutions
for the problem of anti-Semitism.
Yet, we Jews are natural allies to each other:
We are a people,
and we must not fight together,
but instead work together.

Like commentator Rashi says of Moshe,
we too must direct our hearts and eyes to those of us in distress,
to share in our collective pain and anguish.

And we must also look for allies beyond our people.
We are both hated by some and beloved by many.
We will not free ourselves of the bondage of anti-Semitism
without friends.
The Egyptian midwives Shifra and Pu’ah in our Torah portion
saved countless Jewish boys.
We look to them for empowerment,
and we look for courage
from those friends that surround us in Vermont and beyond.

Nor are we alone in our suffering.
Far from it.
We must stand up together with those targeted
for their race, their socio-economic status, their personal identities, for simply being themselves.
We might use our place in society—
often in the middle,
now in the 21st century, often in places of power—
to relieve our own distresses, as well as that of others.
In the words of Reb Zalman:
“The only way to get it together—is together.”

Like Moshe, there may be risks involved.
As Rabbi Isenberg-Grzeda wrote:
“Moses was aware that, by Egyptian law,
the act he was about to commit would forever
cut his ties to the upper echelons of Egyptian society
in which he was raised.
He would become an outlaw.”

Like Moshe,
sometimes we too must take risks to speak up and speak out.
Like Moshe,
we too must remember what motivates us to make a greater whole.

May the words of our origin story
bring us to unity among ourselves and with others,
and draw us towards a world redeemed
from anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms.