[by Rabbi Michael Wolk]
Recently we began the public reading of the book of Shemot (Exodus), the second book in the Torah. The biblical story picks up after the end of Bereishit (Genesis) and all the characters that we learned about previously have died. Joseph and his brothers passed away and their children remained in Egypt.
The Egyptian society was going through changes as well. The Pharaoh, who worked with Joseph to ensure that his people were fed during years of famine and that Egypt prospered, also died and new leadership rose to power. We read about a new Pharoah who did not know about Joseph, and it was this ruler who enslaved the Israelite nation in Egypt.
At first, it looks like this horrible action will bring additional prosperity to the kingdom because of a whole new work force. Pharaoh needed workers to build their cities and here was this untapped resource that they could use without repercussions. We, who know the whole story, already know that Pharaoh’s failure to remember his country’s history leads to its ruin through the ten plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea.
The importance of remembering history is an idea that is very familiar to us in the Jewish community as so many of our traditions and customs are based on remembering important events, both good and bad. We are instructed to remember that kindness that God showed our ancestors by taking us out of Egypt, which is the foundation of our religion. We are also required to remember the many atrocities perpetrated against our people such as the Holocaust. We are the prime teachers of the maxim “If you forget history, you are doomed to repeat it.”
In Louisville, we are wonderful at preserving Jewish communal memory. People remember the rabbis and cantors who prepared them for their b’nai mitzvah 60 years ago, and they remember where their grandparents sat in the old synagogue buildings downtown.
Recently at KI, we hosted a beautiful event where our congregants and others had the chance to learn about the synagogue’s history and to share their own personal memories, which are the foundation on which our community is built. This area of communal memory is something that Louisvillians should be very proud of and it is one of the factors that has kept our community strong where other more recently-formed communities have floundered.
Everything that I have written until now comes with a big “but” attached to it. We know anecdotally and from recent surveys of the Jewish community in America that younger generations do not necessarily want the same things out of Jewish community as their parents and grandparents. How do we value our commitment to historical memory while at the same time meeting the needs of current and future constituents? Without either of these key ingredients, Louisville’s Jewish community will flounder.
Rabbis and other Jewish professionals spend a great deal of time trying to solve this equation, but as we see from the Torah story I mentioned, leaders can get it wrong. It is up to each and every one of you to acknowledge these multiple needs within our community and to work towards a happy future for Jewish Louisville.
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Shabbat candles should be lit Fridays, December 20, at 5:07 p.m.; December 27, 5:11 p.m.; January 3, 5:16 p.m.; January 10, 5:23 p.m.; January 17, 5:30 p.m.; January 24, 5:38 p.m.; and January 31, 5:45 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi Michael Wolk, the rabbi of Keneseth Israel Congregation (Conservative), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.