“And there arose a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
These words from this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, set up the generations of enslavement to Pharaoh that befell our biblical ancestors. Fearful of the prolific progeny of the Israelites, this king chose to deal harshly with us, eventually bonding us into slavery.
The ancient rabbis discussed at great length what the idea of “a new king” represented. Some suggested that it was just the son of the previous king. Others suggested that it was the beginning of a new dynasty, a family that wasn’t familiar with the contributions that Joseph had made to Egypt’s success.
One interesting suggestion came in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, a collection of rabbinic stories and interpretations from 600s-1000s CE, that Joseph himself had risen to be king, but after his death his successor, who were not of Israelite descent, took over and turned on his predecessor’s nation.
From this one verse of Torah, we can imagine the paradigm shift that our ancestors must have experienced, from being a welcomed and celebrated minority to feared and persecuted infiltrators, seemingly overnight. This would have been especially true if Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer was right, and our ancestors went from having one of their own on the throne to bondage in the blink of an eye.
The rabbis of our tradition, each of them living as part of a minority in whatever land they inhabited, knew from the tenuous nature of living at risk of oppression, a reality our people held for generations.
For some Jews, December can be overwhelming, with lights, tinsel, and the “muzak” playing through the country reminding us that we are the minority. It can prompt us to feel like the Israelites of the book of Exodus, reminded every moment of every day of the precariousness of their lives and how at a moment’s notice their oppressive rulers or neighbors could come for them.
But as Americans our experience as a minority has been markedly different, especially through and after the 20th Century. In the last 100 years, our experience in the US has been to be welcomed, even celebrated, by most Americans and society at large.
Even on a day like today, as many of our neighbors prepare to celebrate Christmas, we do not need to feel fearful or apprehensive in the same way that our ancestors did in generations past. In fact, as many of us know, there are Jewish fingerprints all over many of the hallmarks of Christmas celebrations, most notably the music.
“The Christmas Song,” “Let it Snow!,” “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” all were written by Jews. So were the songs about Rudolph, rocking around the tree, and the holly, jolly nature of the holiday. And perhaps none as famous, either the song or the story of the composer, than “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin, who was born Israel Beilin, a Jew from Russia.
But when I think of Irving Berlin, of “White Christmas,” and of his perhaps even more famous work “God Bless America,” I think of the triumph that is Jewish life in America. That a landsmann of ours could be celebrated in such a way. That our people have risen to positions of leadership and influence all around the country, in the political sphere, the intellectual sphere, and the cultural sphere. That on a night like tonight, when Shabbat falls on Christmas Eve, that rather than be fearful of a new king arising, we can grow and prosper in the fullness of ourselves and our tradition.
And, as Shabbat ends tomorrow, let us all celebrate with Chinese food!
Rabbi Greg Weisman