We Live for Times Such as These
“There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” Apparently, the new ruler forgot the wise counsel Joseph offered the previous administration, advice that saved the Egyptian people from starvation and the land from ruin. But that’s not enough to explain his hostility toward Joseph’s descendants, the Israelites—why he now sought to enslave them. The narrator’s remark must be pointing to a deeper ignorance.
“Joseph the Tzaddik” is considered the pillar of righteousness in our tradition. He represents the moral foundation that underlies exemplary, principled behavior. “A Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” indicates a leader unmoored from scruples and indifferent to suffering, whose vainglory led him to oppress an entire people. “To know” becomes a recurring motif in the Exodus narrative. The ensuing contest between Moses and Pharaoh unfolds for one main purpose—so that “Pharaoh may know that I, Adonai, am God; the Earth belongs to Me, not to you.”
For Jews, this divine pronouncement, issued at the first liberation, endures as both an ongoing hope and an implicit mandate. Our hope—that the future of the Earth belongs to God and not to any single despot, no matter how powerful. And, our mandate—that it is up to us to hold fast to the precepts of our faith: to love not only our neighbors but the stranger among us, to pursue justice, and to care for the Earth that has been entrusted to us.
We engage Jewish practice—study, prayer, and service—precisely for times of challenge and struggle. There comes a day when we’re not just practicing the dance but dancing, when it’s no longer a dress rehearsal but the actual performance. In 1951, well before the Civil Rights Movement was underway, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following words, in an essay entitled, “To Be a Jew, What is It?” “At a certain point, we have to face our existence in terms of sharp alternatives: we either surrender to the might and threat of wrongdoing or persist in the earnestness of who we are.”
According to the Midrash, upon hearing Pharaoh’s harsh edict: “if it is a boy, throw him into the Nile, but if it is a girl, let her live,” the men separated from their wives. They said to themselves: “why should we bring children into this cruel world, only to suffer?” The women, affirming life, would not succumb to fatalism. They rebuked their husbands: “your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. He decreed only against the males, but you would abolish male and female offspring. His intention was for this world only, but yours impacts this world and the World to
Come. His objective may or may not come to pass, but yours will surely take effect.” What did the women do? They plied them with food and drink, until, in their husbands’ state of reverie, they seduced them! The first example of civil disobedience in recorded history is credited to the Israelite women.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s eerily prescient speech on the evening before his assassination is well-known for its closing lines. He’s been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. He may not get there himself, but he knows that as a people, we will get there. What’s not so familiar is what he says earlier on:
“If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the whole sweep of human history unfolding in a panoramic view before me, and the Almighty asked me, ‘Martin Luther, which age would you like to be born in?’ strangely enough, I would turn to Him and reply, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. But I know that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Dr. King was grateful to be alive when he was, during an era of division and struggle, because he knew that God’s hand was at work in the world precisely then, and the seeds of Redemption were taking root at that very moment. What good is a candle at high noon? However, in pitch darkness, a tiny flame may cast its beam for miles around.
Ultimately, freedom means the refusal to take marching orders from the power structures in which we are embedded. Liberation occurs the moment we allow our own moral convictions to dictate our thoughts, emotions and actions. It doesn’t matter who happens to lead the nation. Our authority resides in our faith—as ones who, like the Israelite women, fear not Pharaoh but their God.