To be honest, I have tried to keep my partisan political opinions at bay. While I try to be outspoken on social issues, endorse legislation or ballot initiatives, I have generally been more silent when it comes to partisan politics. But since we are not in an election cycle, and things have gotten to be so bad, I feel comfortable saying this:
President Trump has been, is, and will continue to be an unmitigated disaster, and it is up to us to resist him.
This is beyond political party, I can honor policy differences. This is about a narcissistic, fear-mongering, petty man who seeks to exploit his office, insult those he doesn’t like, use others for his own ends, and destroy the institutions which have sustained our country for centuries.
This should be a figure that is familiar to us. This week in our Torah reading cycle we begin the Book of Exodus and the story of the exodus–the flight of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery under Moses. As every story must have a beginning, we read about the origins of Egyptian oppression in this week’s parasha, Shemot, and we are introduced to the villain of the story, the Pharaoh.
This is the Pharaoh, we are told, who “did not know Joseph.” In other words, he is of a later generation than the story we just read at the end of the Book of Genesis, when Joseph and his family–after a long story of attempted fratricide, human trafficking, dream interpretation, and political opportunism–settle in Egypt. They are well regarded and protected, even as a minority.
The new Pharaoh seeks to undo everything that his predecessor did, and rather than protect the Israelites, enslaves them after spreading baseless fears that they will take over the country. Sound familiar? We have in Trump a person who is doing all he can to undo what his predecessor has done, without any reason other than it is what his predecessor did. Whether it is the sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act through executive order (since any effort to legislatively repeal and replace it has failed), or rolling back the many regulations and protections, Trump disrespects the office by disrespecting his predecessors.
And like this Pharaoh, Trump sees immigrant minorities as a threat, and makes baseless claims to institute oppressive policies that have nothing to do with actual safety or support and everything to do with control and targeting those who seemingly threaten existing power structures. Pharaoh and Trump seek to maintain the primacy of the ruling class by force.
Did this new Pharaoh really not know who Joseph was and the role he played in Egyptian history, or did he choose not to know, to ignore precedent, and to not see beyond himself in the office he is privileged to hold? Did he really sense societal unrest, or is his characterization of the Israelites based on outright lies to stir up his base? In both cases, the latter, and in both cases, we have parallels between our text and our reality.
This story of the Exodus is central to our Jewish theology and worldview. It is one that is present in each and every prayer service, it is the one that we celebrate each spring around the Passover Seder table. We are taught that we are to opposed the Pharaohs of our world, just as we did the Pharaoh of the Torah.
What is interesting to remember as we begin reading the story of the Exodus is that the Pharaoh of the first few chapters of Exodus is not the Pharaoh of the rest of the story. The Pharaoh that sits on the throne later, who is confronted by Moses with demands to “let my people go,” is the successor to the first Pharaoh, who, we are told at the end of chapter 2, dies.
But this new Pharaoh too demonstrates a stubbornness in his refusal to grant Moses’s request, to liberate an enslaved people and demonstrate the inherent divine quality of every person, a stubbornness that leads to the plagues. It is his “hardened heart,” his lack of compassion, his narcissism, his quest to be the most powerful, that brings down his country in ruin.
And as this second Pharaoh is the one who brings on the plagues of blood, frogs, locusts, cattle disease, lice, hail and so on, one can say that through his constant refusals he brings on environmental disasters. Again, sound familiar? Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Accords, his promotion of America First, his quest for economic gain at the expense of our natural resources, will have devastating effect for generations, all because he does not see beyond himself.
But even still, these are not the only two Pharaohs of the Torah. The role of Pharaoh shows up in earlier stories in Genesis as well.
Pharaoh shows up in Genesis chapter 12 with Abraham and Sarah. They are travelling down to Egypt because there is a famine in Canaan, and Abraham asks Sarah to claim she is his sister and not his wife, so that he will not be killed. Pharaoh takes her from Abraham for his own purposes and buys Abraham off with riches, until God intervenes. Thus this Pharaoh is shown to be one who sexually exploits women and who buys silence through financial payoffs. Again, we see this happening now.
And Pharaoh shows up at the end of Genesis in the Joseph story, as mentioned above. This Pharaoh has the dreams that Joseph interprets, and elevates him to a high position in the government. And while this Pharaoh did welcome and protect the Canaanite refugees, he also oversaw the imposition of a system of economic inequality that brought great wealth to him and his court at the expense of his citizens. Need I say it again?
There are four Pharaohs mentioned throughout Genesis and Exodus, four Pharaohs who are understood to be different individuals, but who all represent an oppressive power and the enemy of the Israelites. Four Pharaohs who together act only in their own self interest, use deception and lies to advance their causes, demonstrate sexual impropriety, demonize immigrants and minorities, impose policies of economic inequality, bring about environmental devastation. Four Pharaohs in the Torah with a parallel in our one President.
We know from the Torah what happens to these Pharaohs. More importantly, we know from the Torah what we must do in the face of these Pharaohs. We pay attention, we cry out, we rise up, we resist, we persist, we demand, we envision a new future and we work to make it a reality. This is what Moses and our spiritual ancestors did, according to our most sacred of texts.
As then, so now.