Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5777

Rabbi Yuval Keren, 15 September 2017

In Parashat Vayelech, Moses delivers his final address to the nation he shepherded through the desert for the last forty years. At the beginning of that journey, events unfolded at a very rapid pace. The Ten Plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians for no more than several weeks. It took them three from the time they left the land of Goshen until they crossed the Red Sea. A year later, they stood at Sinai to receive the Torah (and worship the golden Calf); two months later, they sent the spies to tour the Promised Land. It was the report of the spies and the response of the People that convinced God that, although it took only a few weeks to get the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, it would take a lot longer to get the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, and turn them into a nation. Some processes need to take time, experience and maturity. Some mind-sets can only be shifted over the course of generations.

Moses, who gave up on herding sheep at the age of 80, was bidding farewell to the nation he helped form for the past forty years. His last piece of advice to the Nation was:

“Be strong and resolute, do not fear or dread the others; for the Eternal your God marches with you. God will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

When Moses delivered this message, he knew that his work was done. During the forty years of the journey through the desert, the People of Israel managed to shed their slave mind-set, the dependency they had on their Egyptian masters, and the fear they had about controlling their destiny. Yet, Moses also realised that what took forty years of hard work to build could take very little time and effort to destroy. This destruction could come from a ‘mighty’ external enemy, and it could come from their fears and weaknesses.

Although Moses explicitly talked about an external enemy, he actually aimed at the enemy from within, the self-enemy that doubts our strength and capabilities. It is the enemy of the slogan “Yes we can” that we know from the children’s TV series Bob the Builder, and from Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign.

Seventy two years have passed since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. During that time we were busy learning the lessons from the Shoah (the Holocaust) and ensuring that the generations ahead do not repeat the same mistake.

Nearly a hundred years ago women were allowed to vote in the US for the first time, Britain followed ten years after. Since then our society removed many barriers and indeed benefitted from empowering women in many aspects of life: in the workplace; at home; in politics; in business; in the military; and more.

It has been a hundred and fifty years since the 16th US president, Abraham Lincoln, paved the way for the abolition of slavery, and nearly 75 years since Rosa Parks refused to abide by laws of segregation between whites and blacks in Montgomery, US. Both events marked the beginning of the end of racism and exploitation.

Recent events in our world mark for me a setback on some of these trends. Antisemitism is gradually raising its ugly head again, even among circles considered to be enlightened and free from prejudice. The barriers to historical revisionism (a.k.a. Holocaust denial) are gradually removed, and the language associated with anti-Semitism is replaced with a ‘cleaner’ anti-Zionism, anti-Communism or anti-liberalism.

The march of the Alt-right last month in Charlottesville, US brought to the fore all sorts of old ‘demons’ of white supremacy, segregation and antisemitism.

All this might leave us in a state of despair and a great sense of setback. This is where the words of Moses must echo in our hearts and minds. We must be strong and resolute in our struggle against racism and prejudice. We must have no fear or dread of those who march with torches and Nazi flags, and who wish to march us back to the times of segregation, slavery and genocide.

So long as we believe in our path of freedom, equality and liberation, and so long as we believe in ourselves, God is going to be on the side of the alt-righteous, and not on the side of the alt-right.
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