By Yochanan Gordon
We are set to read the third parashah in the book of Sh’mos. Although the word “Sh’mos” is translated as “names,” the accepted English translation is that the book of Sh’mos is the book of Exodus. The exodus of the Jewish people from enslavement in Egypt is the theme that occupies the first three parshiyos and is a watershed moment in the history of our people. One of the merits of the people in that era that propelled them over the threshold of redemption was that they kept their Jewish names; perhaps that is the relativity that “names” shares with “exodus” that led to the inconsistent translation of that word.
I was reflecting on what it means to be in exile and what is ultimately required of us to make it to the side of redemption. There is a rule that in determining the accurate translation of a word one should see the context within which it was initially employed. Following this line of reasoning, I would say that if we want to put a finger on what it means to be living in exile that, too, would be communicated at the beginning of Sh’mos when the Jews, after the passing of Yosef, Yaakov, and the rest of that generation, were plunged overwhelmingly into an exilic state of being. There, all the way in the beginning of the book of Sh’mos, the Torah tells us of an Egyptian raising his hand against a Jew. Moshe, the paradigm of empathy, and someone who was above and impervious to the effects of exile, sprang into action, neutralizing the aggressor. Immediately thereafter we are told about an incident of Jew-on-Jew violence, which compelled Moshe, who felt responsible, to scream out, “Evil one, why do you strike your fellow?” In juxtaposing these two incidents it seems that the Torah is defining for us what it means to be overcome by an exile mentality, which is Jews attacking other Jews in order to walk proudly in claiming moral ascendancy to anyone who is paying attention.
A prevailing sentiment I’ve noticed that compelled this particular article has been triggered by political partisanship. Whether it is one’s perspective on the January 6 Capitol riots, COVID masking, vaccine hesitancy, booster hesitancy, or any other opinion that went against the prevailing political narrative of the day, it was met with screams of “chillul Hashem” and other similar Jewish terms, as if to say one is a disgrace to our people and ought to be ashamed of oneself.
More recently, the issue of abuse has taken center stage. It doesn’t take courage to stand up for victims of abuse. All moral and decent people will easily denounce perpetrators of abuse and stand behind and give a voice to victims of those heinous and vile acts. But now that Chaim Walder is gone and has no doubt met His maker, it seems as if there are people in our midst who feel it is their moral duty to expose the next scandal in the Jewish community.
Lest I be accused of equating abuse with politics, I should say that there is a difference between people who are addressing the issue of abuse while rehabilitating those who, sadly, have been victimized and people who are engaging in the politics of abuse. If COVID has taught us anything, it is that there is a clear distinction between medicine and the politics of medicine. Unfortunately, it seems that the same could be said about people involving themselves in the sphere of abuse. There aren’t sufficient words of praise for people like Zvi Gluck and the team running Amudim and the great work that they do for the Jewish people on a regular basis. However, unfortunately, there are fellow Jews who masquerade behind a computer screen and their Twitter handles, seeking to uncover dirt on other Jews and involving as many other Jews as they can in their latest scandal. Again, nobody is condoning harmful and disgusting acts such as abuse. But to be preoccupied day and night with seeking to expose dirt within the Jewish community, and to call out people who themselves have dedicated their talents, time, and resources towards stamping out these acts is not only endemic of an exilic mindset but fits within the rubric that the Torah uses in defining what it means to be in exile.
About 20 years ago, Avraham Fried released his Bein Kach U’Bein Kach album, which featured an English song titled “Father Don’t Cry,” an emotional song that implores G-d to stop crying and finally deliver us into the redemption. It contained a line that said, “We’ve done all we can, now it’s in Your hands; let it end, the whole world is waiting for You.” A friend in yeshiva at the time publicly denounced those lyrics as blasphemous, claiming that if we had done all we could do, we would have already been redeemed.
What he didn’t realize is that those lines were based on a declaration of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who echoed the call of his revered father-in-law and predecessor, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who said, “Tamu avodas ha’birurim”—that all the necessary purifications that are required prior to redemption have been done, and all that is left is to express a true desire to be redeemed.
When G-d sent Moshe to set the redemption of the Jewish people into motion, we were far from a perfect people. In highlighting the three merits, mentioned earlier, with which the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, some commentators point out that holding on to Jewish names and maintaining a Jewish dress code and manner of speech were the only identifying characteristics of Jews in that age. By all accounts, Egyptian culture had dominated and permeated the Jewish way of life. Remember, when Moshe arrived and attempted to raise the morale of the exile-weary nation they completely disregarded his message, as the Torah says: “They did not listen to Moshe due to a shortness of spirit and overwhelming workload.”
What is required more than anything to make it to the other side of this exile is to unite people and to believe in our essential goodness and in our worthiness of being redeemed. With that, I sincerely believe that we can create that euphoric reality together.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.