The Jewish Superpower
by Jhos Singer
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), launches us into a new reality (biblically) and a new year (in reality). Our reading sets into motion the series of fortunate and unfortunate events that will eventually coalesce into something we now call Judaism. We pick up this reading at a point—not a clear point, but a point none-the-less—wherein the Israelites have laid down roots in Egypt over some many decades or even a few centuries. All was going quite well, until….
“…there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people; ‘Behold! The People of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when a war upon us occurs, they would join themselves to our haters and fight against us and rise away from the land.’ And so they set over them chiefs of forced laborers, in order to burden and busy them. And the people built for Pharaoh the store cities of Pithom and Raamses.” (Exodus 1:8-11)
This Pharaoh distinguishes himself in our history as the first leader to be irrationally terrified by our small and otherwise unremarkable group of people. He sees us as remarkable, far more powerful that we see ourselves, and dangerous. And he sets the stage for a series of crazy and often deadly adventures, referred to as “The Exodus out of Egypt”, that are now inextricably linked with being Jewish. Ever since that escapade, surviving terrible despotic reigns is a superpower deeply woven into the psyche and fabric of Judaism.
We are so dumfounded by the whole business that we constantly tell ourselves and each other this story. Our liturgy references it twice daily and we study the tale as it comes up in our annual Torah reading cycle. We explore it most deeply at Pesach/Passover, when we not only talk about our first collective trauma, but embody certain parts by eating dry, flat bread and pungent, bitter herbs.
But Judaism is so much more than just surviving mad leaders.
We raised and ignored our prophets, we built temples and we waged wars within and beyond our own house, we watched as our culture was destroyed from inside and outside, and we re-imagined ourselves again and again. We spoke Hebrew and then Aramaic, then Arabic and Spanish, then French and German, inventing along the way linguistic love children of our various travels: Ladino/Djudezmo and Yiddish. We adapted to whatever culture we were in, without totally losing our own culture, history, and quirks.
Our world is in trouble, friends. And Jews have an important role to play in getting humanity through this new narrow place. We have the toolbox and we have the skills, painfully gained from Mitzrayim to Jerusalem, from Spain to Warsaw, from Berlin to Pittsburgh. Our tradition is rich with techniques for how to hold ambiguity, to have faith despite the odds, and to allow ourselves to morph without losing our neshama/essential nature. We must continue to preserve and innovate, to learn and to teach, to never, ever, be afraid of a frontier, or a mystery, or the great unknown. Moving beyond the known is quantum spirituality. And that is a leap we have made time and time again.
Part of the superpower is curiosity, and part is a sense of connection. So when you sing or pray in Hebrew and wonder, “What the heck am I saying?” you are activating that superpower. As this year winds down and 2019 gears up, I want to invite you to find out what you are saying. If you don’t like what you find, then like our rabbis— who established a path of uncompromising integrity for us—challenge it, question it, or replace it. Or try on the sandals of your spiritual forebears who fought and walked away from enslavement, leaving Pharaoh and his armies behind, in pursuit of freedom, equality, justice, and peace.
It begins with you. Let Chochmat Halev be a place where you explore your truth. Spar and dance with the Torah. Introduce yourself to a stranger at services. Volunteer for something you’ve never done before. Step outside your comfort zone as a way of expressing your freedom, your Torah, your story. Recently Rabbi Lynn told me, “A journey starts when you take a risk.” May each of us take that chance knowing we have a community to hold us, see us, and celebrate us at every turn in the long and winding road.
shemot 5779 2018
January 16, 2019
December 19, 2018
November 29, 2018