This was sermon for Parshat Sheimot (Delivered via Zoom 12/24/21)
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we read that “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.” Because he did not know, learn or remember history – he lived in fear of a nation that meant him no harm. Because he lived in fear – he resorted to violence and murder. He enslaved a people – killed its male children, and led his nation down a path that gave rise to misery and heartbreak for both his people and ours.
Right at this moment that begins the epic tale of our people’s history, the Torah teaches us the importance of grounding ourselves in an understanding of our nation’s story – if we do not learn it, we will mistake ancient allies for enemies – brothers for adversaries. But it’s not just about learning, but rather about knowing – deeply understanding. It does not say a new king arose who had not heard of Joseph – but rather a new king arose who did not KNOW him.
I have been studying and rereading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s, wonderful book, “Einstein and the Rabbi,” in preparation for teaching a class on it. In the chapter, “Finding the Me Within Me,” she says, “There is something that your soul knows that you’ve forgotten.” Actually I think there are universes that my soul knows that I’ve forgotten – bits of family and communal history contained within stories I didn’t listen to closely enough; burning-bush-sized reservoirs of soul knowledge that I didn’t stop to look at and thus do not see or know.
But what do we do with this? If we’ve forgotten something – it is gone. Its knowledge no longer does us any good. No – in order for it to benefit us – we must RE-Member it. To dismember is to take something apart into its component pieces – we must do the opposite – we seek out the component pieces, search for them, study them, put back together our personal, family, and community histories and RE-member them in our minds. We can then begin to figure out some of what our souls know, but had forgotten.
The book of Exodus takes us annually on this journey – the creation of our peoplehood, and in the spiral of its yearly retelling we have the opportunity to REMEMBER what it meant to be slaves in Egypt, to be freed, to wander in the dessert of the unknown and ultimately to make it to Sinai (only to complain once there about how much better we had it before). Our souls’ journey as Jews is to keep RE-membering. To redraw our lives and our history again and again until it makes more and more sense to us. Until we begin to see more than just our outlines in the story, but how we are living it still, and how it is continuing to bring meaning to our lives.
How many burning bushes were in our path that we neglected to stop and gaze at and thus missed? How many times were we enslaved to ideas or goals that no longer suit us? How often were we floating aimlessly in a Nile of disengagement. But this week’s parashah stands to remind our souls to cry out, “Let My People Go.” Our personal, communal, and spiritual freedom is in front of us always. We, unlike Pharoah, do remember Joseph. We also remember Pharoah. We remember slavery and we remember freedom. We remember feeling slow of tongue and too afraid to speak – and we remember actions that spoke far louder than words could.
As we begin to reembark on our peoples’ foundational journey, I pray that we will connect to it in ways that help us to recall the things our souls have long forgotten. I pray that it will lead us to better awareness, connection, and unity with our own souls and with the soul of our people.