As we begin a secular New Year, I’ve been wondering what kind of world we will make for ourselves in 2013. There are serious challenges we face as a nation, and at least two ways to address them. The parasha gives us two models to choose from.
First, we have the model of Pharoah. “A new king arose in Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) What could this possibly mean? Did such a long time pass between Pharaohs that Joseph’s heroic acts were legitimately forgotten? Or is something else at play here?
Rashi gives us a sample of the many rabbinic comments on this issue. Perhaps a great deal of time passes between the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time and this “new” king. Or perhaps, asah atzmo ke’ilu lo yada. He made himself forget. He willfully acted as if he never knew what had come before.
The other model of world-making we learn from two women, the midwives named Shifrah and Puah. When this “new” Pharaoh decrees that all the first-born sons of the Israelites are to be killed, Shifrah and Puah resist, resisting the evil decree.
The portion begins with these words, which give the book its Hebrew title of Sh’mot, or “Names”: “These are the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt… Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda…” Exodus 1:1.
“These are the names….” These words have haunted me in recent weeks. We have seen lists of the names of those killed in Newtown, Conn., scant days ago. These are the names: Charlotte, Daniel, Grace, Noah, Rachel, Olivia, Josephine, Anna, Dylan, Dawn, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Emile, Ann, Jack, Caroline, Jessie, Avielle, Lauren, Mary, Victoria, Benjamin, and Allison. These are only the most recent 26 worlds to be destroyed by the plague of gun violence. This was only one of the most visible massacres – the ones that make the news for days on end, the ones that get our attention and bring us to our knees. Among the many year-end lists so popular this time of year, we could add a gruesome one: the list of the 30,000 people whose lives ended this way in America in 2012, most of whom didn’t make the 24 hour news cycle. When my father was murdered by a man with a gun almost 14 years ago, news of his death barely made one column inch of news in the Chicago Tribune.
We have a choice in America this year. How will we respond? Will we be like Pharaoh? When time passes, and the news cycle turns, it will be easy to forget this nightmare. And who really wants to remember it, anyway? It would be much easier on our psyches to will ourselves to block out this tragedy.
Or will we be like Shifrah and Puah, speaking truth to power, demanding justice, standing up for what is right, resolving to remember these names, and never forget?
Will we allow the NRA and those it supports to continue to rationalize the ownership of weapons of mass destruction in the name of the Constitution?
If the names Aurora and Milwaukee and Tucson and Virginia Tech didn’t convince us that it’s time to do something about the ease of access to murderous technology, perhaps the name Sandy Hook will.
On this Shabbat Sh’mot, let Shifrah and Puah be our model, not Pharaoh. Let’s hold our officials accountable to make the world safer, rather than be complicit in a culture that throws its hands in the air, resigned that we can do nothing to curb violence. Let it not be said of us: asah atzmo ke’ilu lo yada.