Parashat Shemot: Attitudes about us

With the rise of anti-Jewish behavior around the world, we also need to pause and realize we are not alone as we have been in the past.

 THE UN General Assembly, New York – which passed 15 anti-Israel resolutions last year.  (photo credit: Eduardo Munoz/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
THE UN General Assembly, New York – which passed 15 anti-Israel resolutions last year.
(photo credit: Eduardo Munoz/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

In the first nine lines of the book of Exodus/Sefer Shemot, we find the name b’nei Yisrael utilized three times, the name Yosef/Joseph mentioned twice, as is the word am, meaning “people.” Meod, meaning “very,” is used twice in a row to show increased emphasis. These repetitions should cause the reader to take note. 

Let us begin with the use of b’nei Yisrael.

In verse one, b’nei Yisrael, “the children of Yisrael/Israel,” refers literally to the immediate descendants of Yisrael, also known as Jacob. They are noted in the genealogy near the end of the Book of Genesis (Gen 46:8-27). When that term is next used in verse seven, Robert Alter points out that there is a new meaning to b’nei Yisrael:

“Though the phrase is identical to the one used at the beginning of verse 1, historical time has been telescoped and so the meaning of the phrase has shifted: now it signifies not the actual sons of Israel/Jacob but Israelites, the members of the nation to which the first Israel gave his name.”

In the verse that follows, we are told of a new king, also indicating the passage of time, and that the memory of Joseph had faded: “And a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Ex 1:8).

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Then there is the extraordinary third usage of b’nei Yisrael in verse nine, when the king says, “am b’nei Yisrael.” Usually, we find either “b’nei YIsrael,” the children of Israel/Jacob, or “am Yisrael,” the people/nation of Yisrael. Here, we have a conflation of the two designations. Alter notes:

“This oddly redundant phrase – it should be either ‘Sons of Israel’ or ‘People of Israel’ – is explained by Pharaoh’s alarmed recognition that the sons, the literal descendants of Israel, have swelled to a people.”

This recognition by the king/pharaoh of the change in the descendants of Jacob and Leah, Bilhah, Rachel and Zilpah, from a family clan to a people, came with a disquieting outlook. Wrapped up in his realization, the king made the point that this people was “much too numerous than 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” (Ex 1:9-10).

Articulated at that moment was the classic fear of foreigners within a state’s borders.

Embedded were the centuries-honored tropes exaggerating the number of aliens inside a country, along with the added alarm that they would become a fifth column forging alliances with a nation’s enemies. It was the ultimate “othering” of a minority population that still continues, with voices singing its ugly melody in far too many societies around the world today. Jews, as our text reminds us, have been victims of this hateful phenomenon from our earliest histories, often with violent and deadly results.

“If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrestled with why the hatred of Jews is found in so many cultures and societies. He famously wrote, shortly after the Shoah, “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.” Analyzing Sartre’s essay “Réflexions sur la question juive,” Clementine Assayag notes:

“Sartre establishes a distinction between the Jew and the concept of the Jew. Indeed, he explains that the notion of being a ‘Jew’ is a social construct associating Jewish people with scapegoats, ones on which all mistakes or wrongdoings can be blamed on. 

“In one of his examples, Sartre portrays a woman who explains her hatred towards Jews; she says that a Jewish furrier has stolen from her, and burnt the fur she gave him. Sartre quickly raises a question; why did the woman decide to hate all Jews specifically, and not all furriers instead? According to Sartre, this goes to show that people are more inclined and predisposed to rely on the antisemitic, social concept of the Jew on which to blame their wrongdoings rather than another figure.”

IN OUR world today, we note that last year the UN General Assembly passed resolutions against the Jewish nation 15 times – but only 13 against the entire rest of the world combined! 

There are many dangers that come with these votes. For one, it only furthers the time-immemorial dangerous attitude toward Jews. But this creates another reality – messages the Jewish state may at times need to hear but get shrugged off and discarded because of the malignant packaging they are wrapped in.

Tom Lehrer composed his satirical song (in 1965) “National Brotherhood Week,” which includes the stanza:

“Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,

And the Catholics hate the Protestants,

And the Hindus hate the Muslims,

And everybody hates the Jews.”

“Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics/ And the Catholics hate the Protestants/ And the Hindus hate the Muslims/ And everybody hates the Jews.”

Tom Lehrer

This is all very worrisome. Is there another narrative we can grasp? With the rise of anti-Jewish behavior around the world, we also need to pause and realize we are not alone as we have been in the past. We have allies and supporters – governments, institutions, individuals – who did not exist in previous chapters of our history. We must embrace that difference, even as we push back against pernicious anti-Jewish attitudes and actions. In the 1930s, US Patent No. 2,026,077 was the “Kike Killer.” Today, local police and the FBI work to protect Jews and synagogues.

This commentary began with mention of the double use of Joseph at the beginning of this week’s parasha and book, Shemot/Exodus. Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen reminds us, “In October 1960, a delegation of 130 Jewish leaders met with Pope John XXIII. The pope welcomed his guests with words… “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4). It was a powerful gesture, as the pope used a passage of reconciliation from the Torah while speaking to this Jewish audience. It was even more personal, as he referenced his birth name, Giuseppe/Joseph. Those words also spoke volumes about the importance and efforts Pope John XXIII put into changing Catholic attitudes toward Jews, creating the conditions for the groundbreaking documents of Vatican II.

For many Jews, anti-Judaism informs much of our Jewish identity and colors and blinds how we understand the world. That scar on our people is all too painfully real, but we must do better at finding a balance, otherwise Hitler and his ilk win. At the same time, there are too many Jews, and non-Jews, who don’t see the reality and dangers of anti-Judaism when packaged in a woke culture

Perhaps those early verses in the Book of Shemot/Exodus include the provocative and incendiary phrase “am b’nei Yisrael,” along with the name Joseph, anticipating a Giuseppe/Joseph who would become Pope John XXIII and embrace us. We must push back against the treacherous tide of anti-Judaism, while at the same time grasp the hands of those who reach out and stand up for us. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.