The Story We Tell
Rabbi’s Message – January 5, 2021
Last week Rabbi Bodney-Halasz wrote of the liminal space that we find ourselves in as we entered 2021, and how we might try to open ourselves to new and different possibilities amid the uncertainty of our current situation. As we begin the book of Exodus this week, I’m always struck by its opening verses. The first seven verses are extremely short. They recount the sons of Jacob who went to Egypt and the tally of 70 souls related to him, that fact that Joseph died, and that his progeny were numerous. All of this in seven verses. And then, we get the ominous eighth verse: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
I am surprised that the book didn’t begin here, as it is the major turning point into the Exodus narrative. The previous 7 verses fit more at the end of Genesis, which deals with the death of Jacob. Much like Rabbi wrote last week, with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, Israel and Egypt find themselves in a liminal state at the transition of leadership.
Rashi and other commentators find this eighth verse to be difficult because there is no account in the Torah that the previous King of Egypt died. The commentaries suggest that perhaps rather than an actual new king, it is the same king, but he begins acting as if he has forgotten Joseph and his legacy.
As we navigated 2020, our lives changed. Maybe in a few months, and after a couple vaccine shots, we will find ourselves in a new chapter. God-willing, 2021 will be a much more “normal” year than 2020. When we go to tell the story of these years, will we be like the Torah that begins the narrative by remembering the past, or more like the Pharaoh who forgot (or acted like he forgot) the past?Can we take pieces of 2020 forward with us to shape a better story for everyone in 2021 or 2022?
Unlike the commentators’ forgetful Pharaoh, Judaism encourages, and God often commands, that we retell our history. We recount victorious times like Purim and Passover when we succeeded over an evil force, and we even remember times that we might wish not to emphasize like Amalek, or all the complaining in the wilderness. Now that we have said goodbye (and good riddance?) to 2020 – how will we tell the story in the years ahead? Will we record just the bad, just the good, or both? Spoiler: Don’t be Pharaoh.