Parashat Toldot

Change is Possible

The younger son and the enslaved people need not stay downtrodden forever.

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What it means to be part of the nation of Israel, then, is to affirm and cultivate the awareness of the possibility of change. It is the consciousness that no matter how entrenched or seemingly natural the present structure, it too is open to transformation. The Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav tells us that this is what it means to be a Hebrew. For a Hebrew, an ivri, as the word in Hebrew suggests, is one who crosses over (ovr) boundaries and obstacles, and in particular the obstacle of meaninglessness and despair.

Change is Possible

One of the great challenges of social action is that the difficulties we face often seem insurmountable. Entrenched structures are made to seem natural. Indeed, one of the most pernicious strategies of systems of oppression is their own seeming inevitability.

Yet they are not inevitable. Who among us would have imagined the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites? Yet from small chinks, a raging torrent of transformation was released. Similarly, when my parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa, fleeing apartheid, change did not seem imminent. In my own lifetime I have seen the apartheid regime replaced by a democratically elected government. 

So too, the obstacles that currently seem insurmountable may not be. For the past four years, the government of Sudan with its proxy militia, the Janjaweed, has been systematically terrorizing and murdering the population of Darfur, its own citizens. Despite financial and political pressure the genocide has not been stopped.

Yet we must not despair. Rather, our sacred texts tell us that reversals are possible, that tyranny can be overcome. Our pressure, financial support, humanitarian aid, and advocacy can still make a difference, both to the lives of individual refugees and to the crisis as a whole. As the psalm (118:22) tells us, "the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."

We must reinvigorate and rededicate ourselves to the possibility of transformation, to enabling, once more, slaves to go free and the powerless to become great. For as our ancestors teach us, the younger son and the enslaved people need not stay downtrodden forever--they too can become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.


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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.