Shabbat Shalom: Rise From the Ground

Jan 4, 2024 | Article

Shabbat Shalom: Rise From the Ground

Jan 4, 2024

By: Dan Leshem
Director, Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’”

After finding refuge in Egypt during a horrific famine, the Israelites found comfort and acceptance in their adopted land. However, a new king rose who did not know Joseph, who did not appreciate the reciprocal bond that had developed between the Israelites and the Egyptians. He saw them instead as an unwelcome, unreliable, and foreign presence who might one day wield too much power and influence. So, he put into place a system of slavery that would reduce the Israelites from a community of ideas committed to a set of ideals, to physical laborers crushed under unreasonable standards. The Egyptians wanted to make sure the Israelites could not “rise from the ground.” And so, the Israelites toiled and suffered until the arrival of the righteous midwives Shifra and Puah, the prophet Moses, and the Levite Aaron.

In some ways, American Jews have been feeling like history is now rhyming, if not outright repeating itself: the comfort we felt in the US and in Colorado in particular, with our friend groups on social media, and with our elected officials who enthusiastically joined us on Public Official Mission to Israel in the past, all seems to have gotten a lot more complicated and tenuous. Holocaust survivors who have lived in the US since the late 1940s are sharing that they feel more unsafe now than at any point since, incidents of antisemitism are climbing, and even our close friends from childhood or college are posting messages online that horrify us. What makes all of this worse is that we are being asked to understand and accept our own marginalization if not to agree that it is appropriate and necessary. It can feel like our comfortable home has suddenly been taken in an effort to make it difficult for us to “rise from the ground.”

Of course, the Jewish community in the US today is not like we were as slaves in Egypt. Throughout Jewish history, it has been moments like these that hold open the possibility of transformation. We have an opportunity now to rethink the place of Jewish voices, faces, and energies in our larger society. The question we all confront in this moment is how do we bring sanity back to public discourse in our country at this moment? In this week’s Torah portion, G-d gives Moses a series of signs that he can use to convince the Israelites and the Egyptians that he is indeed a messenger of G-d. He shows him that his staff can turn into a snake, Moses’ hand can turn leprous, and Nile water can turn into blood.

Ultimately, G-d acknowledges that none of these signs will work in the long term: it will take a more powerful message to convince the Egyptians. However, G-d insists Moses do these small acts of defamiliarization anyway. Teach the Israelites to view their rods, their hands, and water itself as something new, shocking, and awesome. We don’t need to accept social visions of reality as fixed, the text appears to say. The western world thinks they understand Israel and Judaism, but, when they look at us, they see only themselves. And yet, Jews have never fit the western mold. Our values are different; our commitments are different; and the precariousness of our existence is different.

May we find the tools to reconceptualize our place and our commitments in Israel and the diaspora to create new and more resilient relationships with the communities that surround us. This is a moment to remind people everywhere of our profound determination for good.

Please email Dan Leshem at with questions or comments.