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Shemot 5784

January 1, 2024

Rabbi Geier


BS"D || Rabbi Geier

Shemot 5784

Do you know the popular saying that goes, "It's the calm before the storm"? Many times, we find ourselves in an almost ideal calm situation, where everything happens naturally. For some reason, in those moments, some of us say, "We must be prepared because SOMETHING bad is going to happen." Is it our pessimism? Is it the inability to enjoy the good moments in our lives? Life seems to show that, as a Brazilian singer-songwriter once sang, sadness has no end, but happiness does. And yes, it sounds pessimistic...

We just finished reading the book of Bereshit, Genesis, last week with an almost serene atmosphere. Yaakov has found his long-lost son. The family has reunited. Yosef has forgiven his brothers. Under his influence and protection, the family settled in the land of Goshen, one of the most prosperous in Egypt. They now own houses, properties, food, Yosef's protection, and Pharaoh's favor. It should have seemed like one of the golden moments in the history of Abraham's family.

Yet, time passed, and a Pharaoh arose who "did not know Yosef," or perhaps chose not to remember him in the face of the apparent threat of a growing and powerful people within the Egyptian Empire—the people of Israel. So, Pharaoh decides that it's better to get rid of this people because, in case of an external invasion, they might ally with the enemy, and Egypt could end up destroyed. Thus, for no real reason, the people of Israel went from living a pleasant life to a life of slavery. Because of an imagined lie in Pharaoh's mind, the destiny of our people changed, or perhaps the people aligned with the path set many years before by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

There is a verse that catches everyone's attention in this week's Parashat Shmot. It is verse 12 of the first chapter: "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread." Perhaps since then, this phrase has marked a people who knew how to overcome adversities and reshape their existence whenever it was threatened.

Every tragedy generated new creativity. After the division of the kingdom following Solomon's death, the great literary prophets emerged—Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. After the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile, there was a renewal of Torah in the life of the nation, starting with Ezekiel and culminating in the vast educational program that Ezra and Nehemiah brought back to Israel to regroup and unite the people under a common narrative. After the fall of the Second Temple, the immense rabbinic literature emerged, preserved until then in the form of oral tradition: Mishnah, Midrash, and Gemara.

From the Crusades came the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the school of spirituality and devotion in northern Europe. After the expulsion from Spain came the mystical circle of Tzfat: the Kabbalah of Rabbi Luria and all that it inspired in terms of poetry and liturgy. From the poverty and persecution of Eastern Europe arose the Hasidic movement and the revival of traditional Judaism through an almost endless flow of songs and stories. And from the worst tragedy of all in human terms, the Holocaust, came the rebirth of the State of Israel, the greatest affirmation of Jewish collective life in more than two thousand years.

The question that arises on each of these occasions is whether we need oppression to grow, whether we would have achieved these accomplishments if misfortunes or difficult moments had not existed. 

My answer is YES. Each of these achievements would surely have come to light, probably more slowly, if these kinds of catalysts had not hastened the processes.

Where does this Jewish ability to turn weakness into strength, adversity into advantage, darkness into light come from? One of the founding moments of this attitude is found just before Shmot and the slavery of Egypt. It goes back to the moment when our people received their name, Israel. It was then, when Yaakov wrestled with the angel, alone, at night, until dawn, and his adversary begged him to let him go. 

"I will not let you go unless you bless me," Yaakov said in verse 26 of Genesis chapter 32. 

That is the source of our peculiar and distinctive obstinacy. We might fight all night, be tired and on the verge of collapse. We might be limping, like Yaakov. But we will not let go of our adversary without extracting a blessing from the encounter. This did not end up being a temporary or minor concession. It became the basis for the new name and our identity. Israel, the people who "wrestled with God and with man and prevailed" (Bereshit 32:28), is the nation that strengthens with each conflict and catastrophe.

That's what we always were and what we are today. That is Israel, overcoming every attack, be it military or press or public opinion. That is the Jewish response to crisis. In every adverse situation, those who have inherited Yaakov's sensitivity insist, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." That is how they found a way to make the desert bloom. Faced with the desolate and abandoned landscape, they planted trees and created forests.

When those of us who are part of that people lose heart, we wonder when it will cease; we should remember these words: "The more they oppress them, the more they multiply and spread," and then move forward to continue bringing light where there is darkness.

In the words of historian Paul Johnson: "For 4,000 years, the Jews have proven themselves not only as great survivors but also endowed with an extraordinary capacity for adapting to societies where fate has thrown them, incorporating the virtues that these societies could offer them. No other community has been more prolific in combating poverty, humanizing wealth, or transforming misfortune into something creative."

Simple. It's all about Tikun Olam, working to improve this world.

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