It is 2020 and I am asking myself, should I wear a kippah on the subway? Should I keep the clergy pass in the windshield of my car? Honesty, I am in a bit of shock and denial. Just last week I was on a cruise where hundreds of Jewish passengers were openly wearing Jewish stars, singing the Chanukah blessings together, and eating latkes. And that was in the middle of the carribean! And here we are, wondering, what does it mean to express ourselves as Jews.
In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, we see moments where people shared their true selves, despite what could happen. It starts with Joseph. Where, after years of being hiding in plain site, he revealed his true nature. “Then Joseph could not restrain himself before everyone who stood by him, and he cried: ‘Get everyone away from me.’ No one was standing with Joseph when he revealed his identity to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers: ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’” (Gen. 45:1-3)
But interestingly, he only shared his identity with his brothers. He first, sent everyone in the court, away. We have to wonder, why?
Was he afraid of looking vulnerable to those servants below him or was he afraid of showing that he was a Hebrew?
This anxiety continued chapters later when Joseph was instructing his brothers and father how to interact with Pharoah. Fearful that Pharoah would treat them badly if they shared they were shepherds, he said to them So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ 34 you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ — so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.”
But they don’t lie. They don’t hide. When Pharoah asks the brothers, “what do you do?” they say “we are shepherds, they tell Pharaoh, refusing utterly to lie, that is what we are, as were our ancestors. And with that, as Rabbi Ethan Linden taught, “the brothers, probably unwittingly, bequeath to their children and their children’s children the primary quality that they will need to survive the slavery that is coming in Egypt, and indeed all the slaveries in all the places that the family of Jacob will wander: the brothers stop pretending, they stop deceiving, and they simply say: this is who we are. We are shepherds, and if that is to mean we are cast out from this place, then so be it. From our ancestors we received this precious gift of identity, this thing we are, and we mean to hold it tightly enough to pass it along to our children. Joseph wants his family to lie, to avert, to obfuscate, as they have always done. But no more. We are shepherds, they tell Pharaoh, and let the chips fall where they may.
Rabbi Linden continued: In many lands and many places we have been asked: what are you? And at times the Jewish people have tried to avoid the question, to blur the lines, to cast about for an answer we hope will not provoke or offend. But the answer, the true answer, the only real answer, is the one the brothers give to Pharaoh: the truth. This is who we are. This is what we do and this is what we believe. We inherited this precious identity from those came before us and we give it as a gift to those who will come after us. We are shepherds, and if that is odious to you, if that is an affront to your sensibilities, then perhaps you are the one who needs to change, not us.”
This evolution of how we reveal ourselves, is important, and can certainly give us lessons today. Yes, we need to know our surroundings. As Deborah Lipstadt recently wrote in an article about the Jews going underground, there are many places in Europe where you can only find the synagogue if you have exact information. There are places where no one is wearing kippot.
And yet this week, the editorial board of the NY Times made sure to come out vociferously against anti semitism.
As was written:
“New York is home to the first Jewish congregation in the United States, Shearith Israel, founded in 1654 by Jews who had been expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese. In the three and a half centuries since, the Jewish population grew. Some Jews arrived in the late 1800s and the early 20th century, entering New York through Ellis Island alongside other immigrants.Others came around the time of the Second World War, seeking refuge from the horrors of the Holocaust. New York has been indelibly shaped by their presence.
And yet now, some would claim that Jews are no longer welcome, that they do not belong.….
Jews are being attacked on the streets of New York. New Yorkers can’t stand for that. What is called for now is a mass show of solidarity and rejection of anti-Semitism, which is among the oldest, most insidious hatreds on the planet.
How beautiful would it be to see thousands of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, walking arm-in-arm through the streets of Brooklyn?
We will see this tomorrow in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Marchers will gather at 11 a.m. at Foley Square, just north of Chambers Street near City Hall, then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
To protect all of us, New York needs to show up against anti-Semitism. We need to march in the streets, together.”
This is incredible. Though we might think that like Joseph, we need to hide our identity, that isn’t the case. We need to wear it proudly and we need to understand who our allies are.”
As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote this week, “Next, we must recognize that while we have enemies, we also have friends — and they are many and strong. In Britain, as we faced a leader of the opposition who many of us felt has made his party a safe haven for anti-Zionists and anti-Semites, it was enormously important that non-Jews from all walks of life came out in our support. It made us feel we were not alone.”
Further, Rabbi Donniel Hartman reflected on these days and wrote:
“We need to talk about anti-Semitism in a way that does not minimize its dangers, but also does not falsely conflate the reality in America with that of pre-Holocaust Germany, or even that of contemporary France. It is important that we talk about the legitimate concerns and fears that anti-Semitism is generating, which are free from the false claim that Jewish life is existentially endangered. It is not, and Jews in North America know this. While they are concerned, they are not selling their real estate holdings or packing emergency go-bags.It is critical that we remember that we are not fighting government-instituted anti-Semitism, but an anti-Semitism which the government itself is committed to fighting. In combating the attacks on where our people gather — our synagogues, community centers, and neighborhoods — we are neither powerless, nor alone.
Our responsibility is to protect and ensure the survival of the Jewish people, but our mission is to create a people guided by a tradition which challenges us to live lives of meaning and value and which can be a light both to ourselves and others. We need to fight anti-Semitism wherever it appears, but fighting anti-Semitism must not exhaust or define the purpose of Jewish life.”
At the end of 2019, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the times in which we are living….He shared:
“The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.
Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.
Yes, it’s still appalling that a child dies somewhere in the world every six seconds — but consider that just a couple of decades ago, a child died every three seconds.
Recognizing that progress is possible can be a spur to do more, and that’s why I write this annual reminder of gains against the common enemies of humanity.
“Three things are true at the same time,” he added. “The world is much better, the world is awful, the world can be much better.”
That is how I feel about the state of being Jewish. I am a rabbi. I can proudly send my kids to Jewish camp and Jewish schools. We can promote Jewish activities in the city. We can visit Jewish communities all over the world. This past Wednesday close to 90,000 Jews filled Met Life Stadium to celebrate the completion of learning a daily page of Talmud. And yet, I am concerned. I am a bit in shock. I can’t believe that I am getting emails from Israeli colleagues asking me how I am. I have always marched for them…now they are marching for us.
And yet, I believe in the world. I believe in our community. I have hope that we, like Joseph’s brothers can share who we are. And if someone has a problem with it, it is they that must change, not us. Shabbat shalom.