Home Digital Content Library “Know Nothing,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings
Blog post

“Know Nothing,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

January 13, 2023 | 20 Tevet 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

The new Pharaoh we meet as we begin the book of Exodus doesn’t know of the power of the women of the people he despises.

He doesn’t know much about the men either.

A new Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph. He proceeded to make sweeping generalizations without any cognizance of their story or their toil as slaves.

The Torah specifically uses the Hebrew word yada as the verb. We may associate the word in the context of intimacy, as in Adam “knew” Eve. The essence of its meaning connotes a deeper understanding, an interest that transcends the superficial.

Pharaoh didn’t bother to inquire. His hubris led him to believe in only his imagined perception that these people could not only threaten his kingdom, they (remember they were slaves!) could overpower him. Maybe if he had sought more knowledge, he would have discovered that these Hebrew slaves:

  • Shared the story of a journey from Ur to Canaan because of a Divine summons.
  • Developed a covenantal relationship between the Divine and their ancestors with a promise of “I will be with you” even in exile.
  • Understood the belief in this sacred Force in the Universe that moves beyond oneself to consider another person.
  • Experienced that although families are complex and complicated with jealousies, questionable decision-making, intrigue, and even manipulative maneuvering, they could turn into a strong and mighty people.

And, these slaves knew that certain human beings may think they possess the same power as God, but they do not.

Pharaoh had not accounted for the internal strength of this oppressed people. Midwives would surreptitiously figure out how to let these baby boys live. A mother would hide her child in a basket, saving him from a certain death and make it possible for this child to grow into the man, Moses, who would redeem his people.

Instead, Pharaoh preferred to be in a state of knowing nothing. He made assumptions, felt threatened, enacted oppressive and unjust laws.

To know nothing is dangerous. In the mid-1800s, a whole group of people in our own country called themselves the Know Nothing party. It was actually a ruse to hide their nefarious xenophobia and prejudices. Eventually, they drowned in their own hatred and were swept to the sidelines of history.

But Pharaoh didn’t know something about his own family, too. When Pharoah’s daughter discovered the Hebrew slave baby in the basket, she defied the same orders the midwives did. His ignorance was to his own detriment. Eventually what he did not know or refused to know brought his downfall so that he drowned in his own unworthiness.

To know is to be interested in the other. It is not just about the physical but the mind’s ability to comprehend the significance of another human being in one’s life and in society. It defies ignorance and connects us in profound ways. Shabbat is a taste of the ultimate knowledge of what the world can be, where empathy, understanding, and deep insight fill our lives and the world. So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom!

  • Join us at 6:00 p.m. for an inspirational and interfaith Shabbat Tzedek, a Sabbath of Justice, to celebrate the values of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with honored guest Tanisha M. Sullivan, President of the Boston branch of the NAACP. Pizza will be served at 5:15 p.m., for kids and families, as well as a separate space for teens to eat and socialize. During Qabbalat Shabbat, young children will have the opportunity to leave the service for a kids-only justice learning program. After the service, everyone is invited to an onsite festive oneg catered by local Black-owned restaurants and featuring the opportunity to join in Israeli dancing. Join onsite, on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
  • Join us for Shabbat Tzedek Morning Service and Torah Study will begin at 9:00 a.m. We begin with a short, informal morning service and then move into an engaging, welcoming and inclusive Torah study for everyone and anyone. To join the conversation interactively online, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website. At 10:00 a.m. onsite, we will engage in REDI (Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) conversations.
  • Riverway Shabbat Tzedek Havdalah will take place at 5:30 p.m. onsite. Please register here to let us know you will be joining us.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat at 7:30 p.m. with a Shabbat Tzedek Havdalah and Musical Gathering: Singalong Songfeset for Peace, Justice, and Freedom. Join on Zoom.
  • We join our neighbors offsite at Bethel AME Church, 38 Walk Hill Street, Jamaica Plain, for a Sunday worship service and Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, with a joint sermon by Rabbi Dan Slipakoff and Reverend Carrington Moore.
  • On Monday, Riverway Project (20s/30s) joins Repair the World for an Online Direct Service Opportunity with Hunger Free America. Learn more and register here.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher