Shemot - 5780 (I am a Jew)
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
“And these are the names [Shemot] of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man with his household they came.” [Ex. 1:1]
The book of Exodus, which details the enslavement and eventual redemption of our people, begins with our names. Egypt, like Nazi Germany, attempted a Holocaust against our people. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives (who thankfully resisted) to kill all newborn baby boys, which would effectively destroy the Jewish people in one generation. However, unlike what happened to us under the Nazi oppression, where Jews in the death camps were tattooed with numbers meant to deny them any humanity, in Egypt we kept our names. A name is a powerful thing. It identifies us, and when we attach ourselves to a family or people, it connects us with their history and values. Thus, the history of our enslavement and our miraculous redemption begins with our names, so that we can remember who we really are.
As anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the world today, as some would try to portray us in ways that take away our humanity and attempt to hijack the meaning of our tradition, we can respond by refusing to accept such nonsense. We have names, and we have families, and we are part of a people with a noble religious tradition and inspiring values.
With this in mind, I would like to share two expressions of what it means to be a Jew, one from France in the early 20th Century and the second from Brooklyn, just a few weeks ago. The first was written by the French playwright and philosopher Edmund Fleg. He was a proud Frenchman, a recipient of the War Cross and eventually an officer in the Foreign Legion. He was also an ardent Zionist. In the 1920’s, according to legend, he was offered a prestigious position to teach Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, the offer came with a stipulation: he would have to convert out of Judaism. In 1928, he published his rejection of this requirement with his response, Porquoi Je Suis Juife (Why I am a Jew). What follows is an adaptation of his powerful statement from the Reform movement prayer book Mishkan Tefillah (pg. 203):
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel, the world is not completed; we are completing it.
I am a Jews because for Israel, humanity is not created; we are creating it.
I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because, above humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss spoke these next words at the “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in Brooklyn on January 5. May we be inspired by both her words and his to stay true to who we are, and proudly proclaim our names as part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel):
My name is Bari Weiss.
I am a proud American. I am a proud New Yorker. And I am a proud Jew.
I am not a Jew because people hate my religion, my people, and my civilization.
Not for a single moment does Jew-hatred, like the kind we are seeing in this city, make me a Jew.
I am a Jew because of the audacity and the iconoclasm of Abraham, the first Jew of all. The whole world was awash in idols and he stood alone to proclaim the truth: There is one God.
I am a Jew because my ancestors were slaves. And I am a Jew because the story of their Exodus from Egypt, their liberation from slavery, is a story that changed human consciousness forever.
I am a Jew because our God commands us to never oppress the stranger.
I am Jew because Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, told her mother-in-law Naomi, “your people will be my people and your god will be my god,” reminding us of the centrality of the Jewish people to Judaism.
I am a Jew because of Queen Esther, who understood that she had attained her royal position in order to save her people from destruction.
I am a Jew because the Maccabees were the original resistance. Because they modeled for us — and for all peoples — how to resist the temptation of self-erasure.
I am a Jew because when Rabbi Akiva was being tortured to death by the Romans he laughed. He laughed and he told his students that he could finally fulfill the commandment to love God with all of his being.
I am a Jew because even after the heart of Judaism and Jewish sovereignty were destroyed my people refused to accept the logic of history and disappear. And I am a Jew because some of our greatest renewals took place in exile.
I am a Jew because my people has been targeted and despised and murdered by the Nazis and Soviets.
I am a Jew because evil hates my people.
I am a Jew because because my people managed to turn destruction into redemption by returning to their land after 2,000 years.
I am a Jew because our Founders saw themselves as new Israelites.
I am a Jew because the biblical words on the liberty bell — proclaim liberty throughout the land! — rang out from the righteous mouths of this country’s abolitionists as they fought for universal freedom in this New Jerusalem.
I am a Jew because it was Emma Lazarus who etched the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger onto the consciousness of America when she wrote the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I am a Jew because of the martyred of Tree of Life and Chabad of Poway and Jersey City. And I am a Jew because of the courage of those who fought back in Monsey and who then, immediately after the attack, gathered together to sing. And I am Jew because my brothers and sisters in Crown Heights and Boro Park and Williamsburg who refuse to hide their Judaism.
I am a Jew because of students across this country who refuse to be smeared and denigrated because of who they are, who are standing up against humiliation, pressure and abuse to affirm the justness of Zionism.
I am a Jew because my brothers and sisters in England and France are battling the anti-Semitism of populist thugs and the anti-Semitism of politicians in parliament.
I am a Jew because I refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. I am a Jew because I have no patience for leaders who speak boldly while failing to take the actions necessary to protect our community. Or for partisan hacks that claim anti-Semitism is the exclusive domain of their political opponents. Or for leaders who believe they can fight Jew-hatred while making political alliances with anti-Semites.
I am a Jew because I refuse to lie.
I am a Jew because Jews are of every color and class and politics and language. And I am a Jew because hatred of us has no color or class or politics or language.
I am a Jew because Jews do not cause Jew hatred. Ever.
Today, as in so many times in history, there are many forces in the world insisting that Jews must disappear or die. Some say it bluntly. Some cloak it in the language of progress.
But I am a Jew because of I know that there is force far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are and the force of our world-changing ideas.
The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.
We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.
We are the lamp-lighters.
We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.
The people of Israel lives now and forever.
Am Yisrael Chai.