Witness – Parshat Shemot 5780

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How do you really understand discrimination and oppression until you see it? With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up on Monday, we celebrate his enormous work in civil rights, and at the same time awake to the sobering reminder that even to this day we forget our common humanity.

For better or worse, our view of the world is based largely on assumptions and second-hand information until we witness the world with our own eyes. And when you’re finally exposed to the facts, they might change the reality you’ve known up to that point. I didn’t fully understand the suffering of the indigenous people in Guatemala until I went and saw it in person on my trip a year ago. Up until then, it felt disingenuous to speak out about causes that I hadn’t verified first-hand. I’ll admit it’s partly because perhaps I didn’t want to imagine the cruel reality. In this way, we allow ourselves to be blind until the truth is staring back at us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we begin to see how miracles are going to play out in the text and what it takes to believe in them. First there’s a reminder that a new king has taken over Egypt, one who does not know the goodness the Israelite nation brought. The story continues with the fear this new king felt because the Hebrews seemed so different. But he doesn’t see them with his own eyes to confirm his suspicions. The king doesn’t engage one-on-one with the Israelites, he simply makes a xenophobic judgement call and then bans them from procreating without verification of any facts. Of course we know how the narrative continues – with Moses being rescued from the Nile, his life in the palace, and his rise to leadership.

When you think about it, it’s really Pharaoh’s daughter who is the savior of an entire nation. Why? Because she witnessed something with her own eyes. There are several conflicting viewpoints on how she may have felt about her father’s rule. Rabbi and Jewish mystic Isaac Luria believes that she went along with her father’s policies until, in chapter 2, verse 5, she comes down to the Nile to bathe and sees the endangered Hebrew child. Until that moment, the plight of the Israelites and these “foreign” people had all been an abstraction, so she was able to believe the worst in them. However, when she sees the tiny, helpless Moses in the river, she recognizes her common humanity with his people.

Pharaoh’s daughter acts because she sees the truth: people are people. As we once again approach Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, perhaps this is a reminder for all of us in all times. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to others when we see them as different. Instead, if you’re able to empathize and identify yourself in someone else’s story, you are instantly linked through your humanity. And by doing so, Pharaoh’s daughter does in fact change the world.

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