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01/25/2024 01:45:57 PM


Senior Rabbi Benjamin Sharff



I am sure as for many of you, whenever I think of the story of the Exodus, I immediately think of Cecil B. DeMille’s 10 Commandments. As a random aside, the 1956 version with Charlton Heston was actually the second version DeMille made. His original version was a 1923 silent picture which contained both a version of the Exodus story and a modern study of two brothers' views of the 10 Commandments.

I remember watching the Heston version every spring when it would come on shortly before Passover. But my most favorite memory of it was in Confirmation class, where my father not only taught us about the movie but also pointed out certain anachronisms like some of the mob in the exodus from Egypt wearing items like sunglasses and wristwatches. 

And of course, there is the meta-metaphor of Heston playing both Moses and also the voice of God. So really when God was talking to Moses, we can wonder, was Moses really talking to himself?

However, as we are reading this week from Parashat Bo, we are at the point of the book of Shemot where we are learning about the final three plagues to fall upon Egypt: locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn.

Now it doesn’t exactly occur as is depicted in the 10 Commandments. Nonetheless, for anyone who has seen this Biblical epic, it was certainly earie with the green mist flowing as the Israelites huddled in their homes praying to escape the melch haMavet, the angel of death. 

It was at this point that Moses, in the cinematic version, was demonstrating to those who had gathered together, how to observe the first Passover. In the Torah, the first Passover involved taking a kid (a baby goat) on the 10th day, slaughtering it on the 14th. Using its blood on the lintels of their doorposts. Roasting it. Sharing it with family and those in need. And eating it with matzah and maror, bitter herbs. One did this while dressed with their sandals on their feet and staff in hand, to be prepared for the freedom that was about to come.

The notion that they were to celebrate Passover as an acknowledgement of their freedom to slavery even before they had been freed, is a sermon for another day. But what we do know is that this 10th and final plague ultimately resulted in the Israelites not only leaving Egypt, but ultimately returning to and conquering the land of Canaan. The land that would ultimately become renamed Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, the land flowing with land and honey. The land promised to our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Yisrael).

Now I will state that though this is going to be a sermon about Israel, it is not really a sermon about Israel. And though it is also about the horrors of October 7th and the subsequent war with Hamas and the multitudes of Israelis and Palestinians who are suffering, it is not really about that either. 

Instead, it is a story about something that happened to me on social media that was influenced by all of these events, but not directly about them either. But I would like to preface that the story ends well. So not to worry.

Like many of you, I have a love/hate relationship with all social media sites, but especially Facebook. If there is one thing I like about it, it is it allows me to keep up with friends both new and old. And I have one friend where we often exchange guitar pictures, especially of his finds on Reverb, a site for buying and selling guitars. He has found some beauties over time. And though our tastes may vary, there are some amazing instruments out there.

And then he sent me a meme recently entitled “Who did it better? Cable management System.” It is a picture of the human nervous system as compared to the cable system often created by IT guys. When looking at the picture, the IT cables are certainly more neat and organized than our nervous system. I tongue in cheek responded, “all I know is God is less vengeful than IT guys.” Meaning, for anyone who has ever worked with IT, if you mess up their system, they are not happy people.
Then he replied, yet the IDF is yet more ruthless … As you can imagine, I was actually enraged by his response and I may have typed in some words that I cannot say in polite company, but they do match my initials. 

And I was ready to cut off this friend, to sever the relationship. But I couldn’t put my finger as to why. From other posts I have seen of his, he is critical of the IDF, just as I have been critical of the Israeli government from time to time. He is certainly entitled to have his own thoughts and opinions on this matter. Why did it bother me so?

And it took me a day, before it really dawned on me. Because what happened is not that he wrote about the ruthlessness of the Iranian Guard or the U.S. military. No, he decided that he had to write about it to both his Jewish friend and also to a leader in the Jewish community. He made a choice to take our space of silliness and appreciation of all things music and force a dialogue or at least an opinion in a way that was jarring and upsetting and disarming.

I was not ready or expecting such an attack. And more than that, I was not expecting to either have to suddenly support the IDF or criticize them. It was not an invitation for dialogue, instead it was holding me accountable for the military of a foreign nation. A nation that I love. A nation that I have lived in. A nation that I have visited and led trips to. A nation that my in-laws are from and a nation that I hope to take my children to someday visit. Nonetheless, according to the working definition of antisemitism, as has been adopted by our own State Department, includes the statement that it is antisemitic to “Hold … Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” 

This is why it bothered me. I felt I was put in a position that I could not win, and that I was being held to a standard that was unfair.

To be sure, to be Jewish is complicated. We are a people, but not a race. We are a religion, but we are also a family. We have a series of beliefs and practices, but those are often defined locally and observed in a multitude of ways. We have a central book, but also two thousand years of interpretive tradition that often look nothing like the original. We are collectively obligated to each other, kol Yisrael averim zeh ba’zeh, but we are not collectively responsible for each other, even if we feel Jewish guilt over the failures or excesses of members of our community. We also have a homeland, but we are also a people defined by 2500 years of Diaspora. Therefore, there is really no good Western word or concept to sum up what it means to be Jewish. 

And this is in part why antisemitism works. Is that because being Jewish is nebulous, it means others can accuse us of whatever fits their narrative. 

As Sarah Tutle Singer wrote for the Times of Israel,

 “Jews are always going to be reviled. For the Antisemite, “the Jew” is whatever they hate. 
We are a chimera. 
And that makes their hate eternal.
If they hate Communism, we are Communist scum. 
If  they hate Capitalism , we are Capitalist scum. 
The postmodern universalist Antisemites say we are too particular and too tribal.
The Xenophobes call us globalists. 
For the White supremacists, we will never be White. 
For the radical woke, we are TOO White and uphold White Supremacy.   
But, they all can agree that we are Dirty Jews, no matter what color they imagine us.
They also  love us for a moment when we are the victim — but even that doesn’t last long and it isn’t real love: it’s the kind of pity that’s really just one shade off from disgust, anyway.
And  like always, like clockwork, they all  find a reason to blame us for our own suffering: we are either  too passive and weak – the eternal Ghetto Jew crawling in the gutter  – or we are the constant  Aggressor, the too-powerful  villain who brought it on ourselves. 
Every trouble in our world is all our fault. 
We are the scourge of the earth.”

Which is why it is all the more important to think of the words of Hillel in Pirkei Avot, “Im ein ani li mi li, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” 

As we have mentioned before, it is not up to us to endorse the State of Israel, unless we choose. We are not obligated to teach the heart-breaking and complicated history of the Middle East to others, unless we so desire. And we certainly do not have to explain, justify, or defend our Jewish selves to others, unless we feel it is warranted. It is not about winning an arugment, it is about choosing how and when we want to engage, and not let others forces us into it.

With that in mind, I reached out to my friend. I explained why I was so hurt by what he did. I explained the uncomfortable position he put me in. I taught how this was actually borderline antisemitic.  And then I waited. I built up his possible response in my mind. I waited for a denial. I waited for the outrage and the personal attack. Instead, I received an acknowledgement and an apology. 

And I wrote back accepting his apology and explained that I would be happy to discuss what was going on in the Middle East at any point, but I preferred it to be through a series of questions and curiosity rather than veiled accusations. I don’t know if we will dialogue about it, or if we will get back to exploring silly memes and music. But in that moment, I was reminded how important it is, how powerful it is to own my Jewish self. 

Sadly, we are living in a world where so many are conflating Israel with the Jewish experience. There are times where it must feel like we are those Israelites huddled in our homes praying that the melch hamavet passes us by while we can hear the metaphoric screams outside our doors of those who are suffering. 

But the Moses and the Israelites did not lose hope. They established a tradition that has been with us for nearly three thousand years. The tradition of celebrating the Exodus, even before it began. There will be better days ahead. But to get there, we need to keep holding onto the best parts of our heritage and tradition. We need to keep praying both for the hostages, who are now being held over 100 days, just as we can keep praying for all the innocent Palestinians who are caught in the crossfire. They are not mutually exclusive to our own journeys and understandings. And we need to keep calling out antisemitism, even as we struggle with all that is transpiring in the world. 

But most importantly, we need to keep living proudly as Jews. For we will not give into hate and fear. Nor should we give into the hate and fear in our own hearts. It is up to us to see the best in others and give them and ourselves opportunities for Teshuvah. For we may not be able to repair the world entire, but how beautiful it is if we can repair a relationship with a friend.

Shabbat Shalom.


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Tue, March 5 2024 25 Adar I 5784