Author Archives: Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster

About Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of education and outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights--North America. She was ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she also received her MA and BA in Midrash. She is a contributor to The Jew and the Carrot and serves on the boards of Hazon and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Return to the Homeland

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

One of my favorite U2 songs, “Walk On,” contains the lyrics: “You’re packing for a place none of us have been, a place that has to be believed to be seen.” The song describes the experience of abandoning all that one has known to embrace the promise of freedom and hope, much like the person who leaves exile after several generations to return to a homeland in which she has never lived.

The lyrics convey an understanding that sometimes home may not be the place where you live but where your roots are.  Even after generations, the connection remains, growing more mythic the longer the return is awaited. And slowly, each generation confronts the question of what it might be like to actually return home.
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This is the situation that the Israelites find themselves in during Parashat Bo. After generations of slavery in Egypt, they are about to be freed to leave for Canaan. They eat the Passover sacrifice ready to get on the road, according to God’s demand to eat it with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand.” With the commotion of leaving and the expectation of a long desert journey ahead, the Torah does not dwell on what finally leaving Egypt might mean emotionally to the Israelites.  All they know is Egypt; the Canaan they have yearned for is that “place that has to be believed to be seen.” Their trust in God must sustain the Israelites for this journey that is both into freedom and into the void of the unknown.

A Trust in God

The Israelites demonstrated this trust through their preparations for the Exodus. When told of God’s instructions for the night of Passover, including the preparation for the sacrifice and the protections to be put in place to avoid the Plague of the Firstborn, the Israelites did not complain or argue. The Torah recounts: “The people bowed low in homage. And the Israelites went and did so; just as God had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.” Though the Israelites at times had doubted God’s ability to redeem them, this time there were no questions.

Good Intentions & Bad Outcomes

Sometimes the best of intentions can lead to tragic outcomes. In Parashat Vayigash, Joseph has his hands full managing the seven years of catastrophic famine that have followed seven years of prosperity. The Egyptian people are starving while Pharaoh has food, having stored much of the harvest during years of plenty. But the people’s ability to buy grain disappears along with their savings. The famine has yet to play out its course, so Joseph begins to collect their possessions for the king: first their livestock, then their land and finally their personhood. To avoid death, the Egyptian people become slaves to Pharaoh, foreshadowing the Israelite enslavement in Exodus.
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Despite our own moral indignation that the price of avoiding starvation is slavery, The Torah does not condemn Joseph for his actions. The commentator Nahum Sarna suggests that the biblical text “shift[s] the onus of responsibility for the fate of the peasants from Joseph to the Egyptians themselves. The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement (v. 19) and even express gratitude when it is implemented!”

Silent on Moral Implications

Traditional Jewish commentators see Joseph’s strategy as an example of his successful leadership and are silent on its moral implications, but modern commentators are deeply uncomfortable with Joseph’s approach. Some suggest that the Egyptians’ subsequent enslavement of the Israelites stems from their memory of this time: they can remember only their servitude and not their escape from starvation. The ethicist Leon Kass is even more directly critical, condemning Joseph for introducing into Egypt the idea that human beings can be owned by the state:

“Israel is…cursed by Joseph’s policies…Joseph’s consolidation of Pharaoh’s power will result in the practice of wholesale slavery. Thanks to Joseph’s agrarian policies, Egypt is transformed into a nation of slaves and Pharaoh becomes Egypt’s absolute master.”

Another especially problematic aspect of Joseph’s “solution” is the long-term impact, which extends a system of indebtedness and servitude to future generations. Joseph’s moral choices leave a lot to be desired.

The Work Was Unfinished

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

As an activist, learning about the work of previous generations can be inspiring–and terrifying. I begin to wonder if I will ever be able to accomplish what the leaders of eras past did, or be willing to take the same risks. For example, when I was in elementary and middle school, the fight to end South African apartheid was often in the news and many of the young activists were not much older than I was. I remember thinking: “What would I be able to do to show such strong moral leadership and live up to their example?”

I imagine that the patriarch Isaac felt the same anxiety, as he is often seen as living in the shadow of his father. Abraham was a trail-blazer, taking his clan to a new land to establish a monotheistic religion and forming an everlasting covenant with God to found a new nation. He did not leave a lot of space for the son born to him late in life, Isaac, to do more than continue his legacy–much as the achievements of earlier activists can feel limiting to today’s aspiring leaders.
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Yet our awe for these accomplishments is often tinged with disappointment when we find that our predecessors’ work was left unfinished. We sometimes feel as though we’re fighting the same battles, still struggling for a renewed and repaired world despite their best efforts. In Parashat Toldot, Isaac experiences this frustration, discovering that some of his father’s achievements were not fully realized.

In one example, a conflict over the digging of wells that Abraham had attempted to resolve in his day reignites when Isaac comes to dwell in the same land. Abraham’s tenuous treaty with the local Philistine king, Abimelech, collapses when Isaac begins to prosper, and the Philistines stop up the wells that Abraham had dug, forcing Isaac from the land.

I can understand how Isaac, re-entangled in a conflict of the past, might be discouraged, tempted to give up on finding his own resolution. Indeed, at first he tries to avoid conflict by moving–three times–to dig new wells, comforting himself with the thought that God has blessed everyone with a lot of space in which to live.