Melanie Henriques, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class
Shabbat Shalom — How privileged we are to be able to greet one another with these words without fear of persecution.
In today’s portion, Shemot, there is a new Pharaoh ruling Egypt. He feared that the Israelites were too numerous and could side with an enemy and overpower the Egyptians. Pharaoh attempted to suppress the spirit and strength of the Israelites through taxation and forced, harsh labor, and eventually death. Despite these measures, the Israelite population and strength continued to increase. This is one of the earliest instances of religious persecution.
I have been fortunate to have lived in two countries and in a time period where religious differences are not only possible and respected but celebrated. In Jamaica, I attended the elementary school established by the Jewish community and a public high school founded by Franciscan nuns – both welcoming to and attended by children of all faiths. Church leaders and government dignitaries annually attended our Rosh Hashanah services to celebrate the New Year with us, and our spiritual leader was invited to celebrate with other faiths. Here in Newton we’ve just celebrated a season of lights – we saw chanukiot glowing and Christmas trees sparkling. Sitting today in our midst are family members and friends of other religions who have come to share this occasion.
However, much of the world does not enjoy these religious freedoms. And it seems to be increasingly getting worse. We all know the story of the Spanish Inquisition where Jews were forced to denounce their religion or flee their country. And we are aware of how the Holocaust has touched the lives of so many, including those in this Congregation. Recently, the news has been filled with reports of religious persecution worldwide. Christians and Yezidis are systematically tortured and killed by ISIL. This past November Kenyans traveling by bus were singled out and shot dead because they were Christians. Nigerian girls live in fear of being kidnapped and forced into marriages and servitude by Boko Haram; hundreds have already suffered that fate.
Are the fundamentalist groups the new Pharaoh? Are they inflicting Pharaoh-like oppression on others through slavery, fear, torture and death; even upon members of their own religion? The Israelites were blessed to have Moses come lead them away from Pharaoh’s bondage. Where is the Moses of the Christians in Kenya? Who will rescue the girls in Nigeria? Who will protect the non-fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan? Who will be the Moses to stand up to ISIL?
There is hope when we reflect on the actions of our civil rights heroes – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. They showed us that individuals can change the world for the better. We see hope in the more than sixty countries who have joined the US-led coalition to fight ISIL. We see hope in Malala, a young girl who stood up to the Taliban. Hope exists in the small acts of individuals bringing together people of different religions such as the Hand in Hand interfaith schools in Jerusalem.
As you sit here today, take a moment to truly appreciate the religious freedom you enjoy. Think about a small step you can take to stop these modern day Pharaohs. We are not required to solve the problem but we can play a part in bringing about more religious freedom than the year before – through charity, calling attention to the issues, and being more accepting and tolerant of one another. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”