Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we see the last three plagues and the people of Israel prepare to finally leave Egypt. First come the locusts, which eat up everything in sight and then fly off again by a great wind of God so that the Egyptians have neither crops nor crunchy locust snacks to eat. Then comes the darkness.
The rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah ask: “Why does God send such utter darkness over Egypt?” They answer themselves: “Because there were transgressors in Israel who had Egyptian patrons and who lived in affluence and honor, and were unwilling to leave. So G‑d said: “If I bring upon them publicly a plague from which they will die, the Egyptians will say: ‘Just as it has passed over us, so has it passed over them.’” Therefore He brought darkness upon the Egyptians for three days, so that the [Israelites] should bury their dead without their enemies seeing them.” Chidushei Harim, an early and influential Hasidic rebbe of 19th century Poland, commented on the same passage of this parasha, “There is no greater darkness than one in which “a man did not see his fellow”—in which a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow man. When that happens, a person becomes stymied in his personal development as well—“nor did anyone get up from his place.”
Throughout history, as Jews have been oppressed, enslaved, forbidden to practice their religion, subjected to unfair laws, the objects of pogroms, and forced to endure any number of indignities, there have been “Court Jews.” A term that appeared in the Enlightenment era, it was retroactively also applied to positions throughout the Medieval Ages, particularly in Europe. Court Jews were primarily bankers or merchants who provided the royal families with food and wine and riches, but they also often served as the money changers the monarchy charged with the distasteful position of collecting taxes, evicting serfs who could not provide their King his due, and generally doing the financial dirty work of the kingdom. All the while, the court Jews would enjoy special privileges, even occasionally given the honor of being dubbed nobility themselves. Yet, while they climbed the social ladder and sat in the lap of material luxury, they did nothing to liberate their people and free their co-religionists of their masters’ tyrannies.
Though we don’t know what role the Israelites in the palace of Pharoah might have played, whether financiers, entertainers, or house servants, we can surmise from the commentaries quoted above that they, like the Court Jews of the Medieval and early Modern eras, lived in a moral darkness. They chose personal comfort over liberation, material wealth over the health of their communities. They allowed themselves to be oblivious to the plights of others, imagining themselves to be untouchable, and in doing so, prevented themselves from ever being whole people. Because those in power who favored the Court Jews still never saw them as anything but Jews. Moses may be an exception, an Israelite who was accepted into the Egyptian royal family as a son, but remember that he went out “among his brethren and saw their burdens,” which communicates that even he felt a sense of an outsider status in the royal home. Even when Court Jews were bestowed noble names and paid well, they were never seen as equal. Even after Emancipation, wealthy and educated European Jews who sought to work their way into high society were advised to be a “man in the streets and a Jew only in his home.” How can such a bifurcated identity ever feel whole?
This week there was a great darkness in our nation, when even vetted immigrants were detained at airports around the country. Those with approved visas and green cards, those attending American universities trying to return from visits to their home countries, those still living in far away lands who waited and carefully planned their visits to their immigrant children and their first generation American grandchildren, and so many other stories of innocent people held. Not just in the way that so many others have experienced since increased security in airports since 2001, but in inhumane conditions. Children handcuffed. People held for over 30 hours with no food, bed, or phone calls to let the families expecting their arrival know where they are. People fearing their loved ones were already deported or disappeared. And while thousands turned up at the airports in protest, shouting love and support for those in the holding rooms, lawyers offering free legal help to the families of the detained, Jewish and Muslim children sharing signs of solidarity and support, others turned their back on this crisis. Perhaps in the name of real concerns. Perhaps for reasons borne from personal experiences, losses from terrorist attacks, a closeness to the situation I cannot understand. But perhaps, for some, simply because of xenophobia. Perhaps from a lack of facts and data. Perhaps in a historically misguided view that if we, as Jews, support those in power at all costs, we will stay safe. Perhaps from a moral darkness that makes it so we cannot see our fellow. In a moral darkness that prevents us from getting up from our comfortable places and facing the darkness.
As Jewish Americans, many of us are here today because of the courage and strength of our refugee and immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents. Many of us have family members that escaped great violence, and many more bear the cultural scars of a people who carry trauma in their very DNA. We are a people who know what it is to seek refuge, to never fit in quite right in any country, to bounce from nation to nation looking for safety. We are the Sephardic Jews of Touro and we are the lost souls of the St. Louis. We are Emma Lazarus and The New Colossus and we are Emma Goldman and the Rosenbergs. We are the hope of freedom that this country has to offer and we are the fears and xenophobia, the mistrust and the assimilation. It is important that through all of that, we remain Jews. We hold on to Jewish values which teach us to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to care for the poor orphan. If we lose those values, if we try to shed our Jewishness and assimilate entirely, if we try to be Court Jews, we will be lost in utter darkness. We may never find liberation in the arms of oppressors, but we can find it in working for the liberation of others.
Once the final plague descends and the Israelites living in the Pharaoh’s palace, refusing to leave, are killed along with the Egyptians, the Israelites spared in Goshen are finally free to leave. With them, go the “mixed multitudes.” Likely other lowly classes of Egypt, the poor, slaves from other conquered cultures, these are people who were ready to align themselves completely with our people. They came with us into the wilderness, embraced the unknown, followed the strict laws of a God they had no context for. They were willing to stand in complete solidarity with the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, and then ready to escape with them. They, and the leaders of the Israelites who took them in without question, knew that the liberation of all people is bound up together.
May we in this current time of difficulties stand up in the darkness, strive to see our fellows, work to hold on to our whole selves, and may we see freedom for our mixed multitudes soon.