“Of Unknown Origin” – Shabbat Vayigash, December 18, 2015

This week, the Temple received an e-mail from a volunteer with the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which is based in Westminster Synagogue in London. They’re in the process of confirming the location and well-being of all of the Czech Torah scrolls administered by the trust – a process that requires us to give them an update every five years.

For those of you who might not be aware, our small community has the honor of keeping in trust one of about 1,500 Torah scrolls from communities around Prague that were wiped out by the Nazis.
A handful of Czech Jews tried bravely to salvage what artifacts they could from their communities. But one by one, they followed all the rest, transported to the Nazi death camps at Terezin and Auchwitz. Only two curators survived, unable to care for what remnants remained of the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia.

Eventually, 1,564 Torah scrolls were salvaged and transported to London, where they were sorted, repaired as best they could be, and placed in the safe-keeping of communities all around the world.

The Nazis, as we know, kept meticulous records of people and things – even tattooing numbers on death-camp prisoners. That’s why the Trust knows the history of many of the scrolls, or at least the towns where they came from. But the information tags on some of the scrolls were lost. And apparently ours is one of those.

The volunteer from the trust who got in touch with us described our scroll, Memorial Scroll Trust Torah number 986, as an “Orphan Torah Scroll” with “an unknown town of origin.” That makes it all but impossible to return the scroll to its rightful owners, and to the community where it belongs.

An orphan Torah Scroll is a sad thing to consider. But an orphan people – well, that’s a terrifying prospect. Yet that’s just what our ancestors face in this week’s Torah portion.

The family of Israel is being torn from its homeland. The land had been promised to Abraham by God for all the future generations of his offspring. Yet just two generations after Abraham, famine has swept through Canaan, and all of them must sojourn to Egypt in order to survive. Israel’s beloved son Joseph – the great-grandson of Abraham and now the vizier of Egypt – takes them all in and arranges for them to settle in the region of Goshen. He’s intent on keeping them far away from areas heavily populated by Egyptians, whom he knows might resent the newcomers’ arrival and the nepotism that got them there.

Israel and his family settle into Goshen as shepherds, presuming they will have to stay in Egypt at least seven years – the length of time that the famine would last, according to Joseph’s dreams of prophecy. But God had other plans, as the Eternal had told Abraham: “Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years,” God said, “And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth.”

The Pharaoh whom Torah says “knew not Joseph” – the one who would oppress his extended family with hardship and drive them into slavery — was counting on the Israelites forgetting where they had come from, forgetting they even were a family. Generation after generation born into slavery, he must have thought, would surely break them, so that they would consider themselves nothing more than disposable and replaceable cogs in Pharaoh’s labor force.

Abraham’s God clearly was counting just the opposite: that the people would remember who they were, where they had come from, and what kept them together. And somehow that’s just what happened. We’re not quite sure how and why. But in Deuteronomy (26:5) we are told: וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב “And there they became a great a populous nation”

Not just populous, mind you, but a “populous nation.” The rabbis of the Midrash teach us that’s why God redeemed Israel: “a populous nation. This teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’.” In other words, over four hundred years, they refused to orphan themselves, and therefore they were redeemed.

Now, more than three-thousand years later, we face the same threat of becoming an orphan people.

It is no secret that, in many parts of the world, the Jews are still as much a despised people as they were in Egypt. Throughout northern Europe, Germany, France, Belgium, and the UK, Jews have been targeted, attacked, even killed. We’ve had similar attacks in our own country – some deadly.
Not to mention the anti-semitic graffiti, the desecrated Jewish cemeteries, and the bullying of Jewish children. Not to mention the Boycott-Israel movement, which is gaining traction across college campuses and among groups of American academics. Not to mention the common ground that civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter are finding with pro-Palestinian organizations, adopting a model of shared victimhood at the hands of their oppressors.

The targeting of Jews by people who ought to be our partners in justice has gotten really bad. So bad that, a couple of weeks ago, an offshoot of Black Lives Matter publicly condemned Rabbi Susan Talve of St. Louis. Rabbi Talve has been a friend and colleague and public partner of BLM since Ferguson. She has won many awards, and much admiration, for her social justice advocacy. Yet they turned on her just the same. Her crime? Being a Jew who is a Zionist and loves Israel.

For that, Rabbi Talve was labeled with the hashtag #realterrorist. For that she was denounced as someone who supports “genocide and international apartheid.” For that, the inaply named Jewish Voice for Peace chapter in St. Louis attacked her for refusing to condemn what it terms Zionist colonization of the “indigenous people of Palestine” – an oft-used phrase by those who deny any Jewish historical presence in the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Talve is being accused of being a fake, because – according to these groups – she cannot be both a social justice activist and a lover of Israel.

This is where we find ourselves today – once again, condemned, attacked, and even killed for the crime of being Jews.

These so-called civil rights groups might say it’s because of the plight of the Palestinians. Others like the European Union might cite Jewish settlements across the Green Line. But many of them would find some reason, any reason, to hate Jews. We’ve been blamed in the past for the Black Plague. For killing Christian children for their blood. For insidious plots to take over the world. There’s always a reason.

In his new book about Europe in the early 20th century, Ian Kershaw quotes a Russian sociologist: “Jews are hated everywhere. They are hated by people regardless of their class or education, political persuasion, race, or age.” That was in 1921. Before settlements. Before the unification of Jerusalem. Before the founding of the modern State of Israel. Before the Holocaust. At a time when Jews were characterized, less like Zionist imperialists and more like Bolsheviks and anarchists. There’s always a reason.

But the method is the same. Cut Jews off from their history, their land, their inheritance. Limit their opportunities for making a living to lending money and selling liquor – and then blame them for craving cash and leading good people into sin. Equate Zionism with terrorism and Jewish identity with genocidal intent. Force us to become orphans.

For four hundred years, the sons of Israel and their clans refused to bow to the Egyptian intent to forget. Their faithfulness is credited for our survival as a people, as a nation, as an extended family. We, too, must resist the powerful forces in the world today that would orphan us from our past, from our homeland, and from our identity as kingdom of priests and a holy people. From our mission to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

I am disappointed and really angry at our rejection by the very people who ought to recognize us as partners – historical partners – in the cause of civil rights and human dignity. But we cannot accept their demand that we choose one part of our identity over another – or we are truly lost.

“If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.” This is the lament of the Psalmist from Israel’s exile to Babylon some twenty-five hundred years ago. If we were not orphaned in Egypt, or in Persia, or in two thousand years of diaspora, we will not be orphaned now.

An orphan Torah scroll is sad. An orphan people is unthinkable.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


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