Getting to Know You

A D’var Torah for Parshat Shemot by Rabbi Brian Immerman

In a Chasidic tale, attributed to Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, we find two men sitting in an inn drinking. One was silent for a long time while his drunk companion talked and talked and talked. Finally, the quiet one spoke up, “Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?” His friend replied, “Of course I love you.” The other retorted, “You say that you love me, but you don’t know what I need, or what causes me pain. If you loved me, you would know.”

As we white Jews work to become antiracist, one of the most important steps is to build meaningful relationships with others — both within and across racial lines. Not superficial relationships, but those in which we truly know someone, both their pain and their joy. It takes effort to know more than just facts and details about people’s lives and then to make them feel seen. The less we know about someone, the easier it is to disregard their needs, marginalize or exploit them, or to enslave and oppress them. As we begin the book of Exodus, our text ominously states, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) Even if Pharaoh was familiar with the story of Joseph, his lack of relationship and empathy allowed Pharaoh to make Joseph the other. He quickly moved to marginalize, exploit, and oppress Joseph’s people. 

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The word “to know,” lada’at in Hebrew, occurs frequently throughout our Torah and forms the basis for our partnership with God in perfecting our world. The tree of knowledge, in Hebrew etz hada’at, imbued us with the ability to know creation and our impact. As the serpent warns Eve, “God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” (Genesis. 3:5) Later in Exodus 23:9, God commands us to love the ger [foreigner or immigrant] because we know [yadatem] their feelings from our time as slaves under Pharaoh. The greater our empathy with other people, the more we feel compelled to fight for them.

Our ability to really know each other has been eroding for some time. We have become physically separated by race and socioeconomic class through Jim Crow separation, the red-lining of historically Black neighborhoods, suburban zoning laws requiring single-family homes, and our single-occupancy car culture. Online news sources and social media exacerbate the physical separation by isolating our sources and commentary about life outside of our walls. We might feel connected to our communities as we scroll through Instagram, and yet we don’t actually know what is behind the pictures we see. Like a new king in Egypt, we have come to know each other less and less. 

Find more commentaries on Parshat Shemot.

This weekend, many of us will honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who implored us to accept that coming to know the other requires courage and conviction. In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes:

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an ‘I it’ relationship for an ‘I thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.

Almost 60 years later, continued segregation and separation means that few Americans know those who are different from them and can more easily separate them in their minds. Later in his letter, King writes with despair:

I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

True relationships, born out of love and respect, take time to develop. These relationships require intimacy and occasionally discomfort in order to truly know each other. After so many decades of intentional racial and economic segregation, and now segregated by our online communities, breaking out of our smaller circles might prove more difficult than ever. Yet if we want to heal the divisions in our country, we must reduce the abundant divisions. While we can do this by choosing to participate in activities, in person and online, that allow us to encounter people different than us, we do not have to go far. Like the men in the Chasidic tale, we seldom engage in deep conversations with our own family and friends. We can demonstrate our love for them by creating a safe space for them to share their pain and their joy, their fears and hopes. If we do the hard work of preparing the soil, creating the conditions for those real relationships to grow, then we can hope that they will take root and start to blossom. By knowing each other, our family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, we can begin to transform the world.

Rabbi Immerman joined Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Connecticut in 2018, after serving as the Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO. Rabbi Immerman brings a passion for the outdoors and social justice and strives to help people create more meaning in their lives through Jewish tradition and values. He resides in Hamden with his wife Jenny and children Maggie and Aiden.