Parashat Shmot – The dialogue of leadership

(Delivered today at Kehilat Tzur Hadassah with guests from Congregation Emanu El of Westchester)

Today marks a momentous day in the history of the United States, and it is truly an event of significance for the entire world.  In just an hour, Donald Trump will being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. A change in leadership of arguably the most powerful country in the world.

We begin a new book in the Torah this week – as America and the world begin a new chapter in leadership.  We begin the book of Exodus (in Hebrew called “Shmot” meaning “names”)  We are reminded of the arrival of the families of the children of Jacob to Egypt and what seems to be a very successful immigration – so much that their numbers grow tremendously which one would imagine is a sign of prosperity.  But then, it seems that the other shoe falls –

ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף. ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ. י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ.

“And there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Here, the children of Israel are a people, greater and mightier than us.  Let us be wise lest they will multiply and they will call us to war and will join our enemies and will fight us and will rise up from the land.” (Exodus 8-10)

How did a situation of enmity come about between the king of Egypt and the Israelites?  On the face of things, it seems that the problem is wholly the king.  The Talmud presents two opinions: Rav says that the king was really new, meaning a few generations had passed and he did not have the personal connection to Joseph and appreciation for what he did for the Egyptian people.  Samuel says that it was the same king as that who knew Joseph but that he became like one who did not know Joseph and made new decrees, meaning that the king changed his mind once the danger had passed – “a fair-weather friend.”  The Kli Yakar (Poland, 16th Century), says that the king did not understand Joseph’s legacy.  He didn’t understand how Joseph came to Egypt guided by G-d’s hand in  his brothers’ attempt to destroy him and to annul his dreams.  If he would have understood, he would have realized that enslaving the Israelites was against G-d’s will and thus a big mistake for Egypt.

However, there always two sides to every story.  Most sources point the finger immediately at the king of Egypt.  I ask, Could the Israelites have contributed also to this conflict?

The Italian commentator Sforno hints at this possibility.  He says that surely the acts of Joseph are recorded faithfully in the annals of Egyptian history and that the king and the Egyptian people hold Joseph and his family in high esteem.  The problem, he says, is that the Israelites themselves had changed as a society – at the time of the new king they had lost their moral compass and were not, to say the least, the model citizens that Joseph and his family had been in their time.

Leadership is attained in different ways today – by democratic vote, by consensus, by default (there was no one else), as an inheritance, or by proving himself through passing a series of tests.  A leader has great privilege and great responsibility.  A leader makes decisions based on any number of factors.

But however s/he is chosen, s/he never works alone or in a vacuum.  Leadership is a partnership between the leader and the led.  Halachic literature (Jewish law) has a basic rule that any ruling which the rabbinic leadership makes, if it is found that it is too stringent for the people or that people are not following the ruling, that ruling may be annulled.  In other words, leadership can fully succeed only with the consent of governed.

As we begin a new presidential term, there is hope that a new leader can be new perspectives and new solutions to old problems.  However, the role of the people does not end at the voting booth.  The dialogue continues – along with all the governing bodies – as the citizens respond to the words and deeds of the president.  I believe there is a need for heightened alert – there are an unprecedented number of hate crimes in the recent months.  I think it is alarming that 30 JCCs received simultaneous (false) bomb threats twice in the course of a week.

I believe we are at a very importunate moment and are reminded that we, wherever we live, must be diligent as always in sounding loud and clear the values that Reform Judaism has always strived to bring to the forefront of the public agenda in Israel and in the United States: That all humans are created in the image of G-d and must be treated with the same respect, and that we have the responsibility to be the stewards of this world.  That the most important mitzvot are the mitzvot  of how people treat one another.  That each and every person has the responsibility of doing tikkun olam, of making the world a better place for our children and for all living creatures.  We believe in pluralism and respecting people as they are.  We believe in inclusion and that our tent is big enough for all who wish to join us.   We believe in complete gender equality.  We remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and therefore we have a responsibility to help all whose hand has fallen whether they are of our people or if they are a stranger (Deuteronomy).

Leaders come and leaders go  Civilizations rise and they fall.  But the people, our texts, and our values are eternal.

When we finish a book of Torah, we say “Strength! Strength!  And let us be strengthened!  Chazak chazak v’nitzchazek.”  Maybe when we begin a book of Torah, we ought to say something as well: ZachorI  Hazkir!  V’nizacher!  Remember!  Remind!  And we will be remembered!”

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