So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. - Exodus 1:11-12
This Torah portion for this week is Shemot, which means "names," from Exodus 1:1-6:1, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23.
On a cool autumn morning this past November, in a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood, tragedy struck as two terrorists, armed with axes, knives, and a gun, entered a synagogue. The men gathered there for the morning prayers were deep in prayer when the first gunshot rang out. After seven long minutes of struggle, four rabbis were murdered and one Druze Israeli policeman was critically injured, later succumbing to his wounds. The heart of the nation was torn and the pain was felt by our friends around the world.
Not more than two days later, a letter went around the internet. It was from the four new widows and the 26 fatherless children. The letter addressed the nation of Israel with a request: out of respect for their murdered fathers and husbands that the nation commit to loving each other more fervently. It was a call to refrain from speaking words of gossip or any hurtful words. It was a call for unity, love, and solidarity. It was a statement that this tragedy would not get the best of us; rather, it would bring out the best in us.
This is the secret of the nation of Israel. Persecuted more than any other people in the world, we have only become better, stronger, and more faithful. The more they oppressed us, the more they refined us and defined us.
This reaction has its roots in this week's Torah portion. This week, we begin the book of Exodus. Just a few verses in, we learn that life had become very difficult for the children of Israel. Initially invited down to Egypt as royal guests, they were now the object of scorn and enmity. The persecution of Israel began: "So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor..." But, "... the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread "
So it was, and so it will be. Israel will continue to thrive in the face of persecution.
Do you remember how the name Israel came to be? Jacob was given the name by an angel of God who said: "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome" (Genesis 32:28). To be "Israel" means to go through struggle and to come out better and stronger on the other end.
Friends, in every challenge, we can choose to become better or bitter. We can let tragedies be the end of us, or open ourselves up to new beginnings. Let's be inspired by the four widows of Israel. In the face of any challenge, let us rise up with faith and perseverance.