This Shabbat we begin our reading of the Book of Exodus. We move from the family sagas of Genesis to a story of a people. Rather strangely and significantly, the first time we are called an am, a people, in the Torah is when the Pharaoh says:
“Behold, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 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” (Exodus 1:9-10).
This text suggests that part of what transforms us into a people is the mistrust, hatred, and oppression we face at the hands of our enemy. This Pharaoh, the one who “knew not Joseph,” the one who willfully forgot how very much his own well-being and that of his nation were due to the efforts and wisdom of a Jew, sets out to turn his people against ours.
Pharaoh’s chilling words initiate the first—but tragically not the last—attempted genocide of Am Yisrael. Just a few verses later, Pharaoh instructs the midwives: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” When this effort fails, because of the brave resistance of the midwives, the call to destroy our people is made more generally: “Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.’”
Throughout our history, antisemitism and our sense of otherness have played outsized roles in our collective and individual identities. Sometimes, as historian and scholar Michael Meyer argues, these forces have led to self-loathing as we have wondered if perhaps our rejection was due somehow to our own inadequacy or deficiency. As Meyer’s : “Anti-Semitism draws scrutiny also to the self. The Jew who feels rebuffed by Gentiles inevitably asks himself: ‘Was it I who erred by some inappropriate word or act, or was it my Jewishness that gave offense irrespective of what I said or did?’” At other times, he argues, these forces have “had entirely the opposite effect, creating a renewed affirmation of Jewishness.”
On this Shabbat, the convergence of those verses from Exodus with Christmas is especially suggestive. This time of the year was often a frightening one for our ancestors, especially in Europe. On Christmas, ever fearful of the false allegations of deicide and the violent response this calumny would inspire, Jews would typically stay home to avoid any trouble.
On this Shabbat, the convergence of those verses from Exodus with Christmas is especially suggestive.
Thankfully, while the Christmas season for Jews in America is often a time where we feel our otherness most acutely, it is no longer a time of persecution or fear. Instead of anxiously sheltering in place in our homes, many of us (in pre-pandemic times at least) would go out for Chinese food and a movie. We are blessed to live in a moment—despite the very real and concerning uptick in antisemitism that we are witnessing—when the Christmas season no longer requires us to take safety precautions.
My hope is that rather than responding fearfully, rather than hiding or denying our identity in the face of the otherness we might feel at this season, we will instead actively embrace the practices, teachings and values that make us who we are. On this Shabbat that happens to fall on Christmas, we should celebrate with pride all that make us worthy of being the descendants of Sarah and Abraham; Rebekah and Isaac; Rachel, Leah and Jacob. We should embrace our identity through joyful action.
We should embrace our identity through joyful action.
Deborah Lipstadt, the recently nominated Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, shares the story of how the Jewish community of Halle, Germany, responded when it was attacked by a far-right gunman in October of 2019. “In Halle, after the attack, when police would not let those inside leave because the situation was not yet secure, the congregants continued praying, studying and singing. Subsequently when they were evacuated to a local hospital, they gathered in the cafeteria, completed their prayers with song and with dance … It was an affirmation of Jewish life in the face of potential death. These Jews offer us an important lesson. Even as others rise up to us, we affirm our Jewish identity. While we stand guard—we would be crazy not to—we do so in order to be free to celebrate Jewish life in all its manifestations.”
May our identity as Jews be connected to the sense of profound gratitude we feel for being part of a People that strives to be God’s partner in bringing hope, goodness, and shalom, wholeness, to our world. May we celebrate and embrace the stories we tell, the values we carry, and the acts of tikkun, repair, in which we engage that make us—more than anything else—Am Yisrael, the People Israel.