To be honest, I was going to take a break this week.
I wasn’t going to send out a weekly message this week—it is winter break from school, and with the kids home I need to alter my schedule. Plus it was Erez’s birthday yesterday, so I took time off so we can have a family adventure. And my parents are coming into town for a few days, also meaning that outside of Shabbat, I wasn’t planning to do much this week.
[And since it is probably too early to write about the new Star Wars movie without giving away any spoilers, I will hold off on that for a bit. But, please, go see it so we can talk about it!]
But then Tuesday morning, I arrive at the shul. There was a lot going on there that morning, Tuesday is one of our days hosting the warming center, which has been getting a lot of activity. And plus we had roofing contractors come to do some cleaning and repair work. It was pointed out that there was some graffiti on the statue outside the office doors, a commissioned work by local artist Simon Kogan that was presented to the Temple when we moved into our new space. Upon closer inspection, the graffiti was a swastika.
I sent out a letter to the congregation that morning, which I also posted on here on my blog and shared on Facebook. Since that went out there has been a tremendous outpouring of support from the greater community. The Olympian picked up the story. Our local interfaith community partners have been notified, as has the ADL chapter in Seattle and the Olympia Police Department.
And though I would like to clean it up as soon as possible, I want to do it right, so have been in touch with Simon as to how best remove the paint without damaging the statue itself.
And while all this is happening, we continue on. Our calendar continues, and this Friday and Saturday of course is Shabbat. In our weekly Torah reading we read parashat Vayehi, the end of the book of Genesis.
In this portion, we read the end of the Joseph story. Joseph, who was sold into slavery yet who was able to rise to the heights of the Egyptian government, reconciled with the brothers who sold him. In this last part of the story, the brothers and their father Jacob move from their home in Canaan to a new home in Egypt where they will be close to Joseph. And after Jacob is reunited with his favorite son, he dies, but not before offering his blessing to his children.
Although the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers is a big part of the story, we learn in this week’s reading that it was perhaps incomplete. Once their father is dead, the brothers believe that Joseph might want to take revenge on them—that is, they think Joseph didn’t want to do anything to them as long as their father was alive, but now that he was gone Joseph will act:
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!’ So they sent this message to Joseph, ‘Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:15-17)
The text does not record any such instruction from Jacob; the brothers seemingly make up a story in order that Joseph not do any harm to them.
Jewish tradition looks upon their act kindly, saying that it is ok to bend the truth sometimes to keep the peace. But what interests me is the brothers’ initial motivation. In this interaction with Joseph, they are clearly driven by fear.
And maybe this was their problem all along, they were driven by fear. It is what led them to first try to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery—that they were fearful of his power of dream interpretation, or they were fearful for their own standing knowing Joseph was their father’s favorite, or they were fearful of him for no rational reason whatsoever. Fear can be seen as a motivator which led to their desire to do terrible things.
And that is the situation we are facing now. Fearmongering is taking center stage and entering the national discourse in a way that it hasn’t in the recent past. When national figures can talk in fearmongering terms about immigrants, or Muslims, or other groups and attract a large following, that is a cause of concern. It creates a culture where overt expressions of hate have the potential to become commonplace.
It creates a culture in which people feel emboldened to draw symbols of hate on Jewish institutions.
As the great sage Yoda once said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (There, I was able to get in a Star Wars reference.) We see this in our earliest texts in the Joseph story. And we see this now.
I don’t know who is responsible for this, or what their motives are. There was an uptick in neonazi activity this summer surrounding the shootings of two black men by an Olympia PD officer. We have already seen TBH defaced as an extension of anti-Israel sentiment. But having a swastika is new, and has not happened as long as I have been with the congregation, and it is hard for me to not see this outside of larger events taking place within our community and nation. When we create a culture of fear, it stirs up anger which enflames hate.
We as a Jewish community will need to take this seriously. We will need to be pragmatic and do what we can to address security concerns. We will need to continue to reach out to allies for support which is so critical. And our additional challenge is for us to not go down this path of the dark side. The swastika rightly inspires fear, and that may very well have been the intention of the perpetrator. But we must not let ourselves be driven by it.