Bereshit Rabbah, the midrashic commentary on Genesis, asks a question concerning the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, that eventually gets built at the end of the book of Exodus. Included among the many materials that are listed as needed to build this portable sanctuary is cedar wood and the rabbis try to clarify where that cedar wood came from since it was nowhere to be found in the wilderness of the desert. The rabbis are similarly perplexed as to why Jacob would stop in Beer Sheva on his way to reunite with his son Joseph in Egypt (Gen. 46:1). Midrash concludes that Jacob stopped in Beer Sheva and cut down the cedar trees that Abraham had planted there generations before, so that the Children of Israel could bring that cedar wood with them 400+ years later when they left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, and eventually use it to build their Portable Sanctuary to God.
A week ago, at the hanukiyah lighting at Rabbi Rottenberg’s home in Monsey, a man drove 35 miles from New York City to this Hasidic enclave, and entered the parsonage, attached to the synagogue, pulled out a machete, and began slashing community members. This highlighted a week of violent antisemitic attacks in the New York area on the Jewish community during Hanukkah. At a time when the Jewish community was following their obligation to literally add light to the darkness, the darkness that we were experiencing was almost unbearable. And yet, our mission, is to continue to add light, long after we are done lighting our menorahs. That is the only way we rid the world of this darkness. That is the only way we end such violent hate towards Jews.
There was nothing noticeably “Jewish” about Joseph; he wore Pharaoh’s clothes and jewelry, and even took on the Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach. He hid his identity to ensure his safety and success. Yet Jacob brings the cedars of Beer Sheva with him. He brings with him that which his ancestors planted, preparing to build a place to publicly show his faith and idenity. While Joseph hid himself to everyone, including his brothers, Jacob proudly brought his Jewish identity with him.
Like Jacob, we carry the weight, burden, and history of our ancestors who have come before us. We carry the weight of those who fought, fled, hid, and in many cases died, because they were Jewish. We are the branches of the roots that they planted. We are their cedars, and to paraphrase the words of Psalm 92, we are strong cedars because of their righteous actions. The midrash clarifies that the past was meant to build the future, that Jacob went to Egypt with the intent of continuing his relationship to God and the Jewish people. He refused to ever hide who he was or what he believed.
As my friend Seffi Kogen, Global Director of Young Leadership at AJC, writes: “we will not win [against hate] by guarding our identity, but by celebrating it. We will win not by hiding who we are, but by trumpeting it, and by being embraced by our friends in other communities.”
We defeat hate by using the metaphorical strong cedars that we carry with us, the strength of our ancestors, to build our sanctuaries, to publicly display our Judaism and to publicly express our Judaism. We do not hide who we are like Joseph did. Instead we celebrate who we are like Jacob did, and bring our Judaism with us wherever we are and wherever we go.
With that in mind, I invite you to join members of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest community and surrounding Jewish communities tomorrow to participate in the No Hate – No Fear Solidarity March against Antisemitsm. Organized by UJA Federation of New York, the Anti-Defamation League, AJC, Torah Trumps Hate, and other co-sponsoring organizations, this March will meet at Foley Square at 11:00am on Sunday, January 5 and march across the Brooklyn Bridge to Columbia Park.
Additionally, these organizations are planning a #JewishandProud day on Monday, January 6, encouraging community members to publicly show their Jewish pride. We invite you on Monday to wear your kippah in public, wear a Star of David, a Hebrew t-shirt, or another identifiable Jewish item.
For like Jacob, we carry with us the strong cedars of our ancestors. And like Jacob we will build our sanctuaries of the future. We will not hide who we are. We declare today and always, we are Jewish and Proud.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky