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Peter J. Rubinstein
The Danger of Ignorance (Parashat Sh’mot)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  January 4, 2013

Often when I speak to you, I speak without reading from a prepared text, even though I usually have a prepared text. Tonight, I felt it was important for me to try as best I could to use proper words, and I apologize in advance if some of these words are not quite exact in terms of what I’m trying to express.

I think we have all gone through a pretty trying and somehow challenging and joyful week. But reflecting on this past week, I realized how easy it is to distrust, even hate, someone you don’t know. The text that we’re going to read from the Torah this evening includes these pivotal and most instructional words:

You know the words, because not only do we read them now, we read them during the Passover seder:  “There arose a new king over Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” (Exod. 1:8)

The commentaries, our rabbinic texts, wonder how could it be that any leader of Egypt, whose nation had been rescued from death by famine, could not about Joseph. How could it be that the ruler of a nation would not know very well their nation’s own history?

Well, our commentators struggled with that quandary, and surmised that this is not a matter of a ruler not intellectually “knowing” that Joseph lived, but rather, for reasons unknown to us, this new king was at best indifferent to the Joseph saga, or perhaps, more cynically (as we know can be the case from our own history), this was a king who nefariously manipulated information, and history, for his own political purposes.

After all, if this pharaoh, whoever he might have been historically, wanted to build, as we know he did, the great cities of Pithom and Ramses, then he would need a force of slave labor. Or in fact he might have needed a scapegoat for a nation’s declining economy or disgruntled citizenry. Then, not knowing Joseph was a convenient ploy for him to transcend history and to accomplish what he wanted to do.

On one hand, hatred and contempt, vilification and enmity come most easily when you don’t know the person, the face, the story of an individual, when in fact you care little about the object of your own disdain. How else, after all, could we explain that in some countries with the highest levels of anti-Semitism, there are in fact no Jews in that country? And often the most vile anti-Semites have had no personal experience with a Jew, have not sat by their side or across a table at a meal. So sometimes we hate those we don’t know.

And then, on the other hand, great cruelty is sometimes focused not on a person we don’t know, but on the person that we know most intimately. Rabid divorce battles sometimes are not focused at all on expediting equitable settlements or on taking care of children or protecting one’s offspring. Or when business partnerships break, sometimes the greatest evil is visited on one’s former, sometimes life-long partner. And the goal in these events is creating misery for the former spouse or the former partner or the former employee or employer; the purpose is actually not to solve a problem but to make the other suffer.

What happens in an individual’s life also occurs in the public sphere. When we assess conflicts in the public realm, it can be confusing as to what motors the conflict. What prevents opposing parties from coming to realistic solutions prior to our hanging over the cliff? Was, for instance, our country’s teetering on the brink of a fiscal cliff the result of one side not knowing the story and the reality of people who would suffer from reductions in unemployment benefits, Head Start, or workplace training programs? Is it that they might not have visited with or understood what it was like for a young mother unable to have food for her child? Was this in fact a conflict between good people who had differing perceptions of the impeding fallout, harm, and suffering from budget cuts or unraised taxes in the lives of the most vulnerable citizens of this country?

Or were we witness to a political charade, political gladiators for whom the end-product was not effective government or the public good, but rather causing harm to the opposing party, or president, or Speaker of the House? Was the aim to politically injure the people on the other side of the aisle? And did that become more important than solving the problems of this nation?

Distrust, hatred, and enmity are dangerous on all sides. They cloud judgment, preempt justice, create suffering, and reduce the decency of which we are all capable and for which we all need to strive.

As 2012 closed, there was some level of understanding as our government withdrew and took us all back, a bit, from the brink. And we would hope that 2013 become a year of “knowing,” not only knowing each other on different sides of the battle over increased taxes or reductions of service programs, but even knowing why those who favor gun control don’t understand those who would favor no gun control. For after all, there is a story there, too, which I would suggest many of us do not know. But above all, we need to know those with whom we disagree, plumbing the depths of their passions, the focus of their concerns, making sense of their reality.

So I would hope that above all, we forsake the motivation to cause pain and harm to our opposition as our main purpose, with the hope that in the end, all of us together as a nation, as a people, and as individuals raise ourselves to a higher order of decency, a higher attitude of judgment, and an expansive embrace of possibility and righteousness. Each of us alone, and all of us together.

You see, in our history, our enslavement began with a king who did not know our story.
So I would pray and hope that all of us, no matter what side of the aisle, no matter what side of the debates that now face us as a country, significant debates that will shape the contours and the character of this nation, do our best so that no one ever suffers, whether in our country’s life or in our personal life, because we have opted for innocence, ignorance, or simply to be uncaring.

We are worthy of much better, both from ourselves and each other.

May God help us for all of this. Amen.

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