To Guard and Remember: A Commitment for 2018

SHMOT EXODUS 1:1 - 6:1
6 JANUARY 2018 /  19 TEVET 5778


Parsha Summary

A new Pharaoh rises over Egypt who doesn’t know Joseph/doesn’t know of Joseph/to whom Joseph meant nothing. The children of Israel multiply, and threatened by their growing numbers, Pharaoh enslaves them and orders the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all male babies at birth. When they do not comply, he commands his people to cast the Hebrew babies into the Nile.

A boy child is born to Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, and to her husband, Amram. When she can no longer hide him, she places him in a basket on the river. His sister, Miriam, watches from afar. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, takes the baby out of the water, raises him as her own son, and names him Moses.

Moses leaves the palace and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and kills the Egyptian. The next day he sees two Jews fighting; when he admonishes them, they reveal his deed of the previous day, and Moses flees to Midian. There he marries Tzipporah, one of Yitro’s daughters, and becomes a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks. 

God appears to Moses in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai, and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand: “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” Moses’ brother, Aaron, is appointed to serve as his spokesman. In Egypt, Moses and Aaron assemble the elders of Israel to tell them that the time of their redemption has come. The people believe; but Pharaoh refuses to let them go, and intensifies the suffering of Israel.

Moses returns to God to protest: “Why have You done evil to this people?” God promises that the redemption is close at hand.



Holy. Buckets. This. Parsha.

It’s like reading the news.

In the early morning it seems our national leaders have entirely lost track of history. On the way to work we hear about a rushed, incomplete, and cruel response to a complex situation spun into a false narrative and declared THE CRISIS from which we will be saved through the trampling of others . . . or how we will be trampled so that others will be saved. Many days by lunch it feels like all of the bushes are burning.

This parsha is a whirlwind. Maybe it’s a bomb cyclone, but I’m still not sure whether that’s really a thing.

And sometimes, when life is coming at us like this, it’s hard to remember to look back where we came from and how the past has had an impact on the present.

This parsha, though, that’s where it starts – looking back at the generation who came to Egypt – just before it tells us that Pharaoh didn’t know . . . or think much of . . . or give any regard to Joseph. This parsha begins by listing the names.

Ruven, Simeon, Levi, and Judah;

Isaachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin;

Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

All coming with Jacob; Joseph already being in Egypt.

And since we know what we know, we should also include Dinah and her daughter Asnath.
Each name a whole life, a whole story in itself.

Last week we finished reading Bresheet and bid farewell to 2017, God willing with strength. It would be easy, I think, to plunge into Shmot with Pharaoh and forget about . . . or give little regard to . . . Joseph and his family.

We are Jews, though. And we’ve got some commandments to help us out. In the Big Ten we get two statements of the commandment concerning Shabbat.  Shamor, “Guard,” and Zachor, “Remember” the Sabbath Day. Guarding and remembering Shabbat and what and who has come before us is one way to not be like Pharaoh.

And we really don’t want to be like this Pharaoh.

Joseph saved the entire region from famine. How could Pharaoh - or anyone in Egypt - ever forget the vital role Joseph played in its survival? In one generation? Maybe in less than a generation?

Well, what if Joseph wasn't forgotten as much as just . . . not remembered . . . in the sense that the significance of his contributions had simply faded from everyone's memory? 

Kind of like Dr. Jonas Salk. (October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995).

He was the American (and Jewish) medical researcher and virologist who discovered and developed one of the first successful polio vaccines. How many of us actively remember that until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world? Not enough of us. In just one generation – maybe less – we have a whole movement of people refusing vaccination. 

I think it happens on smaller scales, too.

It’s certainly happens to me.

Growing up, when given a gift my mom’s rule was that I could not benefit from that gift until I had expressed my gratitude to the giver. That rule has had significant positive impact on my life. I still do my best to write thank you notes before using a gift. But when was the last time I thanked her for making that rule in the first place? (Thanks, Mom!)

And thinking of that, when was the last time I did an accounting of the other gifts I only realize the significance of now . . . in retrospect?

How do we guard against this kind of not remembering?

As part of our celebration of Chanukah this year, Liddy suggested we play a game. She calls it “Time’s Up”. I’ve also heard it called “Celebrity”. Typically, players write down a few names on index cards and put them in a pile. They get shuffled and distributed, and then players, in pairs, try to get their partner to say the name of the person on the card. Round one by saying anything but the name, round two by only saying one word, and round three by acting it out. In the spirit of Chanukah, and since Liddy is married to a Jewish educator who is now also in rabbinical school, we changed it up and came up with about 40 names of Jewish heroes. Heroes like Simcha Blass, Emma Lazarus, Debbie Friedman, Hank Greenberg, Anna Sokolow, Andrew Goodman, Debra Chasnoff, Louis Brandeis, Malah-Noa-Hogla-Milka-Tirza (the daughters of Z), and Mickey Schwerner. We looked for stories of people who had played a vital role in society, people who had made a significant positive contribution. People we want to remember, and whose memories we want to guard.

In the process, I learned about Gertrude Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999), a chemist who developed the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that made organ transplantation possible, the first effective anti-viral medication, research that would lead to the development of AZT (for HIV/AIDS), and treatments for lupus, hepatitis, arthritis, gout, and other diseases. Gertrude’s research is one of the big reasons I’m alive, and until December I don’t think I’d ever even heard her name.

In this game, I was reminded of some of the awesome things people who have come before me have done in their lives, and I was filled with gratitude for the impact they had on the world.

It was a great game. I hope we make it a tradition. 

How might I thank them? I found Gertrude's obituary. She never married and had no children. I'm working on it.  How might I thank the people alive today who are acting in the world as they did?

As I look out into 2018, informed by the parsha which is escorting us into this New Year, I am so aware of the current whirlwind. Its demands are real. Guided by our tradition we have to face the news, respond rationally and with compassion to complex challenges, elevate the truth, and insist that we do not need to react out of fear. We must pay attention to all of the bushes that are burning. 

We also need to commit to active remembering.
We need to make sure that we always know Joseph.

I learned from my mom to express my thanks in the moment, and I hope I do well by her, but I think one of the ways we make sure we don’t lose sight of the contributions people have made in our country and in our lives is to look back and express our gratitude now. It’ll be a repetition in some cases. In others, it’ll be for the first time because it’s only upon reflection that we realize the significance of what they gave or taught us.

This is one of my commitments to 2018 – maybe you want to make it one of yours, too. I will take a look at where I am and where I have come from, the goodness I have in my life, and what I’ve learned. I will think about who I have to thank for those things, and write or call or email . . . and tell them. I will not be like Pharaoh. I will remember.