The weekly portion “Shemot”
Jan. 7, 2021/ 23 Tevet, 5781
Illustration: Some of the damage done to the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, by rioters seeking to undo the congressional certification of Joe Biden as 46th president of the USA
Jews don’t like it when their rabbis show anger. But on the other hand, Judaism teaches us to be righteously indignant in the face of great immorality, and rabbis are expected to model Jewish attitudes. Today, I write to you from a place of righteous indignation.
I have lived through many sad days of American history. I am not referring only to days when foreign enemies assailed us, such as February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001. We have also been beset by our own domestic enemies. I remember the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, of Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember the killing of four student protesters at Kent State University in 1970. I remember the bombing of the Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995, the work of American right-wing extremists, domestic terrorists. But never until yesterday have I witnessed a mob, roused to a pitch of hatred of their fellow citizens at the incitement of the President of the United States and those who spoke in his name, invade and desecrate the secular Temple of our democracy. That was the chilling nightmare of Trumperdaemmerung made all too real.
As a rabbi, I habitually process events happening in the here and now through the prism of lessons preserved in our tradition. Is it only coincidence that, just at the time when the outrage of a century took place in our nation’s capital, we are reading the story of the Pharaoh of Egypt and the enslavement of our ancestors?
“Now there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) The Pharaoh of the enslavement was most likely Seti, the scion of the 19th dynasty of Egyptian rulers. His family had come to power on a platform of xenophobia. The only “true Egyptians” were their ethnic cohort, the majority that had lived in Egypt since time immemorial. The Semites and other foreigners, including the Children of Israel, who had migrated to Egypt, were less than equal. They were automatically to be suspected of disloyalty. Their work was valued, but not their rights.
“Come, let us deal shrewdly with them” (Exodus 1:10). The Pharaoh did not impose his program without the help of many native Egyptians. Like “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans,” the nationalist hatreds of 19th-Dynasty Egypt were a link between the leader and his followers. The Pharaoh had a willing audience for his program of demonization and dehumanization of the immigrants who had taken refuge from famine and distress in the fertile lands of the Nile Delta.
“The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives… ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women… if it is a boy, kill him.’” The Pharaoh thought that he could compel people to behave immorally. It would have worked, but for the moral compass of the midwives. “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). So then, the Pharaoh turned to the people at large to be his agents of murder. Clearly, he expected to be their only source of ultimate value.
Do I have to spell it out?
We have a president who came to power by playing on people’s ethnic resentments and fears. “Only you are true Americans,” he signaled to them; “others are not genuine patriots or not even worthy of the title, ‘American’”. Before the general election of 2016, Donald Trump outpointed many truly conservative Republican candidates in the primaries, precisely because he connected best with enraged and fearful lower-middle class White Americans. They were certainly not the majority of his supporters. But they were a key component of his core, although he extended it with business-friendly policies. Throughout the tumultuous four years of his presidency, he has constantly kept that core stoked, raising the temperature dramatically in his post-election loss maneuvering. When Rudy Guiliani urged the pro-Trump rally to have a “trial by combat” at the Capitol, there can be little surprise if among the hotheads were those who thought both that he was speaking as a consigliere in the name of his boss and that the time had come for those words to be taken literally.
But this is not the only Biblical parallel to consider today:
I asked above, “Who’s Pharaoh now?” But the truth is, Pharaoh is only a partial parallel to our outgoing president. Looking at the damage done to the Capitol of the United States, by those agitating, as he urged until yesterday, for the election results of 2020 to be set aside, I think that the better Biblical parallel is Nebuchadnezzar, the Emperor of Babylon who sent his loyal troops to destroy the Jerusalem Temple.
“And in the fifth month, on the seventh of the month (in the the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon), Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house; all the houses of Jerusalem, that is, all the houses of the great, he burned with fire” (II Kings 25:8-9).
Nebuchadnezzar is known from the Book of Daniel as well as the Book of Kings. In that biblical account, he is a byword for overweening pride. As is also the case in the Bible story of Joseph, the king had a dream, and the Jewish hero interpreted it correctly. Daniel gave the king the proper ethical consequence to be gleaned from the dream. The king was supposed to learn humility and cease oppressing people, both the members of other ethnic groups under his control and his own Babylonian people themselves. But the king refused to learn humility, and as a result of his hubris, he suffered a Heaven-sent punishment, described in poetic terms:
“He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until this hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Daniel 4:33).
The decompensation of our president has grown ever more pronounced since Election Day, and the imaginative description of that process in Daniel is uncomfortably relevant. Thank goodness that, in our nation’s hour of need, Vice President Pence, Senator McConnell, Senator Graham and other elected officials with a track record of morally questionable loyalty to the whims of the president remembered that their oaths were not to a Fuehrer but to the Constitution.
We are still two weeks away from an orderly transition of power in this country, but I am more hopeful for a peaceful transition than I was two days ago. We endured a nightmare yesterday, and as of now, we are beginning to emerge.
May we, as a nation, learn the proper lessons from the outrage of January 6, so that it will never be repeated.
Rabbi Michael Panitz