Sh'mot: Make a "Know" Year's Resolution

In this week’s Torah portion of Sh’mot, the first in the Book of Exodus, a new Pharaoh arises after Joseph’s death who (in)famously “did not know Joseph.” (Ex. 1:8).  Of course, this new Pharaoh could not actually have been ignorant that Joseph both saved Egypt from famine and, in the process, obtained for Pharaoh title to all Egyptian lands except the priestly holdings.  So, “did not know Joseph” must mean that Pharaoh chose to ignore Joseph’s contributions and legacy.

Later in the portion, Moses and Aaron present themselves to this Pharaoh and say “Thus says the Lord, the G-d of Israel: ‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.’”  Pharaoh replies, “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” (Ex. 5:1-2).

It’s apparent that Pharaoh only “knows” (acknowledges) what and who he chooses to know.  Does this describe us, as well?   

We too often limit our contacts to people, information, and situations with whom/which we agree and feel comfortable.  We stay within our “comfort zone” and seek things that reinforce it.  We subscribe to newspapers and magazines that, and listen to commentators who, generally or strongly reflect our cherished political views.  We befriend those who share our values and interests.  We avoid and may even seek to exclude (such as from social gatherings and educational panels) those who think differently.  

But while all this is comforting, it does not express Jewish values.  Our own Talmud is a vast debate reflecting many dissenting opinions.  In most cases, after lengthy discussion, one opinion is adopted for implementation, but contrary opinions are neither suppressed nor ridiculed. 

There’s an Arab student in my Ulpan (Hebrew class) who lives in East Jerusalem. I recently asked him to consider showing me his home and community.  He was surprised; why did I care, and what would be the point?  He was too polite to be more direct, but I understood what he meant: I’m a kippa-wearing Jew and am obviously biased in favor of Israel.  

That’s true, I said, but that didn’t mean I wish to be ignorant of his or his people’s circumstances, or to shut myself off from their criticisms of those whom I support.  Even if inevitably biased, I want to form an intellectually honest position.  If that requires me to change my thinking, I'm willing to try.

“But you’re a lawyer,” he countered.  “You argue for your clients, you don’t try to support the other side.”  That’s also true, I said, but I can’t convince a judge or jury of the merits of my clients’ position if I ignore unfavorable arguments and evidence.  And I especially can’t recommend settlements to my clients if I can’t point out and assess the strengths in their adversaries’ positions and the weaknesses in their own.  

We’ve only begun this discussion, so I don’t know whether my acquaintance will take me to see his home and community.  But I’m optimistic that he will at least sit down with me and share his views.  And I hope that after doing so, I’ll be able to share them with others, even if I don’t agree with them. 

Near the end of the Torah portion, Moses says goodbye to his father-in-law, Jethro, and begins the journey back to Egypt on his G-d-given mission to lead our people out of Egypt and here to Israel.  Jethro says “Lech l’shalom.”  Although this is usually translated “Go in peace,” it literally means go to peace.   

Both Jethro, a non-Jewish priest whose wisdom the Torah highly prized, and Moses himself knew that Moses was, in fact, not going to peace; at least, not in the short-term.  To the contrary, he was going on a dangerous mission: to confront Pharaoh and to bring upheaval to the Egyptian nation and society.  But for the Jewish people, revolution was the only possible road to eventual peace. 

Jethro evidently understood that going to peace is more important than going in peace. In fact, living in peace is an ultimate goal that can only be achieved through justice.  The journey toward its attainment is more important than living a peaceful existence.  And justice begins by listening to “the other,” even if, for any number of reasons, that is the only step toward peace that may be possible at the time.

Listening to those with whose opinions you disagree (or even despise) doesn’t mean agreeing with or surrendering to them or their view.  It doesn't mean being naive, foolish, weak, or impracticable. It just means being willing to try and understand others' positions: an important beginning to an important journey.

A new secular year has just begun. Why not make or add this resolution: to broaden the sources and contacts from which you form opinions.  If doing so deepens your existing convictions, fine.  And if it challenges them in the interests of justice, all the better. 

Go to peace, and may your journey be blessed.  

Shabbat shalom u'mvorach from Jerusalem. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb