Saturday, January 5, 2013

Parashat Shemot

            Happy New Year! Welcome back to Hebrew school and our Saturday morning services. I hope everyone enjoyed their vacations. I know I did, and partly because I got to spend most of my New Years’ Eve and Day watching the Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy network. I love the Twilight Zone, and always look forward to this marathon every year. Every episode is different, with a new cast and story; there’s no consistent storyline throughout the series, which lasted many years. Each episode is filled with some sort of science fiction or supernatural events. When I was younger, I especially loved the outright scary ones – “Night of the Living Doll” or “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Around high school and college, though, I started to realize how many of the others – the ones I found kind of boring when I was a kid – had great social commentaries hidden within them, and I love every year watching the marathon and finding more and more like that. “Number 23 Looks Just Like You,” which could be the inspiration for the very enjoyable current Young Adult novel series, Uglies, warns of the problems with a society that requires total conformity. “The Monsters are Due on Maple St” is one that is commonly shown as part of a curriculum teaching about the Holocaust, used to show how easily people can be manipulated into turning on each other.
 In “The Monsters are Due on Maple St,” an average suburban neighborhood is startled by a sudden power outage and a clear day. When the adults want to investigate the rest of the town, a teenage boy warns they probably can’t leave or re-enter to the neighborhood. But one adult leaves anyway. He says he once read a comic book wherein aliens shut down the power in a neighborhood just like this to isolate them and make it easier to take over. In the book, he says, one of the families in the neighborhood are actually part of the invading aliens’ force, sent ahead to blend in and learn the ways of the earthlings. Immediately, the whole neighborhood freaks out and starts accusing each other of being aliens, and eventually, one particularly panicked man shoots a shadowy figure coming down the street. The shadowy figure turns out to be the neighbor that had gone to investigate the next neighborhood on his return. Truthfully, though each episode might have a different lens or be about specific facets of society’s ills, at least half of the Twilight Zone is basically about xenophobia, the fear of people different from us. Whether showing the attempt to make everyone the same, or showing the panic that leads to the deaths of innocent people to simply because they might be different, the route of the problem is the same.
            In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people face xenophobia for the first of many times in history. A new pharaoh arises that did not know Joseph and all that he had done for Egypt. All he knows is that there is the huge family of people who are not Egyptian living on Egyptian soil, and he is scared. Like in most Twilight Zone episodes, there is a tragically small minority of upstanding people who refuse to give in to fear. In the parasha, we find two Hebrew midwives are asked to kill Hebrew babies as they are born. The women lie to the Pharaoh, saying that the children are already born and in their mothers’ arms by the time they arrive, and it is too late to kill the boys. As Hebrews themselves, there is the possibility that Pharaoh already hates or is somehow afraid of them, too. They are lowly midwives, with no real power or voice in Egypt, and yet they have the courage to stand up against the great king of Egypt. They could easily have been harshly punished, even killed, but they are spared.
            Pharaoh then orders his own people to throw all baby boys into the Nile. Given that these two unimportant, outsider women, were not harmed for passively disobeying Pharaoh’s orders, it seems it would have been fairly easy for the Egyptian people to also just, you know, not go out looking for Hebrew babies to actively drown. But there is nothing in the text that lets us believe there was any dissent from the Egyptians. Again, like in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple St,” the real “bad guy” is distant. Pharaoh is in his palace, the aliens are on a hill behind Maple St. They are not actually doing any of the violence themselves. They are merely creating the situation that makes it easy for normal humans to become the monsters themselves. When the community only has one guy willing to say, “We’ve lived next to each other for years, how can you suddenly believe any of us to be monsters from outer space?” or only two women willing to quietly assist in the healthy births of children ordered to die, the odds are not great that they can triumph over horror.
            But with just one or two “good guys,” the community is still better off than with none. At least the “bad guy” has some difficulty, sees that not everyone agrees with him. It’s not easy to be that one, or one of few, willing to stand up against what’s wrong. Especially in these particular situations, when the opposing force is so powerful or unseen. It requires a lot of courage. As Jews, we have a particular responsibility to find that courage. To draw inspiration from the midwives of this week’s Torah portion and from the one good protagonist found in almost every Twilight Zone episode. As a people who have faced xenophobia and exile many times throughout history, we should have the empathy to help stop it when it happens elsewhere. In our country, we don’t have quite the problem with this issue that we did 60 years ago, or anything like what we see in this week’s parasha, but racism still lives in this country. You can be like the kind, brave midwives of the story simply any time you hear a racist joke or receive an offensive email forward, and speak out against the joke teller. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you will find how much xenophobia still thrives in our world. Keep your hearts open, and you will find how much you can do to fight it.
            May you all find the courage and openness to openly accept anyone of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors. And may the monsters stay far away and leave us all alone.  Shabbat Shalom. 

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