I wrote and posted this a few years ago about this week's Torah reading -- one of my favorite things I've written. Hardly original, but still good!
Here are a few of my pieces related to this week's reading in the Torah on the first days of the Exodus, escaping from Pharaoh and crossing the Sea and heading into the desert toward Mt. Sinai:
What Is a Miracle? (why miracles are not about natural/supernatural but the relation of real/ideal)
Hope (about finding Joseph's bones)
The Torah contemplates something parallel to the national leadership dynamics situation we are judging right now, about the relationship between the president’s words and acts and the actions of the rioters. Thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for directing my attention to a source on this. I’m linking his shiur (lesson) on the text, but I haven’t listened to it yet (I will, but it’s an hour!). So the take on the text here is mine and we’ll see how it tracks Rav Klapper’s.
This week’s Torah reading in Jewish communities is the beginning of the book of Exodus. Chapters 1-2 are about the progression from Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites to slavery to the murder of baby boys, and then about resistance. Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (medieval Spanish commentator) lays out an interpretation of what the Torah text presents us.
Nachamides taught that Pharaoh had the whole project of enslavement and murder in mind at the start. But he did not begin that way specifically because his people would have recoiled at that, and Pharaoh was constrained by the willingness of his people at a given moment. So first he proposed a corvee, a small forced-labor tax, because his people would have regarded that as common and acceptable behavior toward foreigners.
Then according to Nachmanides, Pharaoh approached the midwives serving Israelite mothers behind closed doors about killing newborn boys, so that even mothers giving birth and arranging for a midwife wouldn’t know what might happen. When that didn’t work, Pharaoh next move was to say to his whole people that they should throw baby boys into the Nile. The Torah says Pharaoh commanded, and Nachmanides says Pharaoh spoke in a more common way, because he didn’t want to assign the task to any specific official. He did not want the act to be associated with his regime specifically, but with the people as a whole. By now they were willing to do things publicly they were not willing to do at first. Nachmanides posits that Pharaoh was also preserving his right to disavow any specific act. If an Israelite father would come to a local official about his own baby, Pharaoh would invite the father to offer proof and then punish the killer himself.
But Nachmanides says that eventually this set of winks became impossible and Egyptian mobs began to storm Israelite homes in search of babies. That was the situation in which Moses’ mother Yocheved knew to give birth in secret and hide the birth and the child, and that’s what led eventually to the acts of resistance involving midwives, Moses’ sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Nachmanides is pointing out that there is more to leadership responsibility than accountability for explicit orders. There is more than what is said out loud, clearly, or publicly. There is a complex feedback dynamic between the leader and the group. The group sometimes constrains the leader; the group can amplify the leader’s general direction in ways of its own that are sometimes predictable and sometimes not; the group has its own reality that is not the same as the regime; there are resisters both inside and outside. It’s worth sitting with the Torah’s story and this kind of interpretation on its own, and then thinking and talking about how it might speak to us right now.
What is the moral responsibility of the leader? Is the group responsible only for its own actions, or for anything about its leader as well? These moral responsibilities of leader and group aren’t identifical but overlap in some way. These are what we should be thinking about, from each of our positions as Americans, partial or substantial supporters or opponents of the president, citizen-judges of what happened this week and what ought to happen going forward.
My D'var Torah at Beth Abraham on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 6, 2018.
Today we begin reading the most important book in human history -- Sefer Shmot, the book of Exodus.
This is the book that transformed what was possible in the world and what was imaginable in the world. You can divide human history and culture into before the book of Exodus and after the book of Exodus. You can divide world literature into before Exodus and after Exodus, and you can divide religion into before Exodus and after Exodus. No one had ever told a story like this, about the gods or the powers of the world, its peoples or its leaders.
The book of Exodus made it possible to change the world, and to tell other stories about change and hope and transformation. And we, the Jews, are the Exodus people -- people who not only experienced the Exodus from Egypt, but whose whole civilization is built out of this book we are reading here over the next ten weeks.
Genesis, which we just finished last week -- it’s not bad. A God who creates the universe with no more effort than speaking, who tracks people across the world from Mesopotamia to Egypt and talks to them, who identifies special individuals and sends them on missions and adventures -- Genesis is bringing some game.
But Genesis isn’t radically new. There are new things in it, but it’s full of the kinds of stories you could imagine in other cultures. And Genesis is still a book about the familiar world. It ends not with transformation, but with exile.Exodus announces itself as something different right away. You see it in the opening scenes, when women get out in front of men and even in front of God, taking charge of the transformation of the world where Genesis left off. The world of suffering and oppression. Midwives who talk back to power, an inventive mother, a courageous sister, Pharaoh’s own rebellious daughter -- they are the last line holding against total evil and the first to rise up.
And what a transformation takes place, from the first to the last chapter of Exodus.
Who could imagine this powerless people, whose babies were being tossed into the Nile, standing at a mountain hearing God speak to each and every one of them? In chapter 1, the Israelites are slaves who have to find their own straw to build cities of darkness to reinforce Pharaoh’s power. By the last chapter, they have given whatever they have in overflowing generosity, and they have built a Sanctuary so perfect that God’s presence immediately fills it and lights it up.
The book of Exodus changed forever how human beings conceive of God. Until Exodus, gods were parents and protectors and allies of kings and overlords, and specific lands. In Genesis, the God Who created heaven and earth seems to be mostly on high, at the top of a ladder of angels perhaps.
But in Exodus, God leaves our land and God comes down. Down to the Nile, to the lowest spot in the low valley of Egypt. Down from the sky into those waters of chaos and death that are carved, down, deep into the lowly Earth. God comes down to the lowest people, who are beaten and dehumanized, whose hands are muddy and blistered and broken, who are detached from their souls to the point where they can hardly do anything but groan, who can’t think beyond the terrible things happening to them now.
God has to fight for them, against a tyrant who everybody thinks is really the god. God has to fight for the Israelites’ awareness. God has to get next to them, down in the mud and in their slave camps, and next to the taskmasters too, just to get any of these people even to notice.
God has to frustrate the expectations of all those who think that gods only go with grandeur like Pharaoh has, the beauty and richness of his palace and his temple and his architecture, and the hosts who do his bidding.
The book of Exodus says: This is much harder work than creating the universe. As you read Exodus, it’s clear that redemption, rescuing these people, takes much longer than six days. And it is a much, more, difficult labor than the Genesis project of making the world.
And by coming down, God shows us that more is involved in being God than pure power -- more than just the abililty to make things and do things. The task of redemption requires commitment, and loyalty, and dedication. Rabbi Heschel called it divine pathos: God’s essence is that God hurts when people hurt. And God is enraged when people stand by and go along or do nothing.
So when people are enslaved, oppressed, suffering, the hurt is so large that God’s response to that is the largest thing that God ever does.What God does in Exodus by redeeming our people is the only thing big enough to justify the idea that God is great. God’s true nature, the gadol-ness, the greatness that we associate with the notion of God -- it isn’t manifest until God comes down, as far from Heaven as possible, into Egypt.
The book of Exodus changed forever what it means to be a leader on behalf of God. In previous stories, in other Middle Eastern societies, leaders were blessed by the gods from the beginning and show off divine powers at a human level. Or they were heroes with magical powers or immortality.
Moses is different. Moses isn’t the son of God. He actually the one who ran away for decades even when he felt responsible for what he saw.
Moses at the burning bush doesn’t remotely see himself as a hero, as a leader. He doesn’t have any of the basic credibilities of a leader or a hero -- he can hardly speak, he does not inspire. As soon as Moses experiences his revelation at the burning bush, he argues that he can’t do what God wants. This resistance against leading is easily the longest conversation between anyone in whole Torah.
At almost every key moment in Exodus, Moses is shown not to be a god, but simply to be a human vessel, an instrument for divine energy and purpose. Moses teaches that anyone can become this, regardless of origins or personality or specific qualities and talents.
The book of Exodus redefined forever what it means to have laws and religious practices. In other societies, religion helped cement the social order and taught people how to be servants for the needs of the gods.
The law code of Hamurrabi in Babylonia, for instance, starts off with the investigation and punishments around murder. The law code in Exodus, right after the Ten Commandments, puts the laws of murder and assault second. The first law is about how to set free the slaves in our own society.
This teaches us that every law and every practice is not simply to serve God but to imitate God. We are God-like, the book of Exodus says, whenever we follow the law, live the law. When we bring about more freedom in our world, or pay our workers a fair wage on time, or watch out for the stranger because we know what it’s like to be the stranger -- Exodus reminds us that we are being like the God who liberated us from the house of slavery.
And the way we pray and the rituals that structure our day and week are Exodus rituals. We sing the Song of the Exodus morning and night, every day. When we rest on Shabbat, we affirm that we are not slave laborers anymore. When we give tzedakah, we are told that this is the opposite of hardening our hearts to people who live in our community and our world.
And our sacred spaces are celebrations of the Exodus. The whole last section of the book of Exodus is about how slave builders became builders of a Sanctuary to the God who frees slaves. It’s about making physically permanent the transformation from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from hopelessness to possibility. As permanent as any pyramid or mummy.
And of course, Pesach. God says: The moment of liberation is going to be there, always. We bring it back at least once a year in an elaborate way. So that every time you are oppressed by another Pharaoh, by armies of enemies, by illusion or illness or depression, you will know that I come down, I come there, as low as you are or as low as things go. No matter how much mud or blood or tears as there may be. I can’t stop those things from happening, God says, but I can and will be there and fight for you to notice Me, to see me fighting there with you.If a religion is made up of ideas about God and rituals and sacred places -- then the book of Exodus changed religion forever. Not just Judaism, but every religion that ever learned about the book of Exodus.
And the book of Exodus changed history, and the possibilities of history. After Exodus, human beings could know that oppressive power might be strong, but it’s never an equilibrium. Each time the Jews have found ourselves against an unshakeable enemy or an unmovable evil -- we have read Exodus and told the stories and prayed Exodus and observed Exodus -- and eventually overcame.
And other peoples have read the book of Exodus and the stories and histories inspired by it, and the same things have happened. The book of Exodus created and continues to create hope, to prove that hope is not absurd in our world.
We are Exodus people. Charged to keep reading and teaching this book, and to define our lives as responding to this book. We take it in, and we broadcast it out. That is what it means to be a Jew -- to live in the light of the most important book ever written.
December is the month of difference for Jews. We usually deal with it by talking about respect for differences, and appreciation of diversity.
This year (2010) Parashat Shmot falls right exactly on Christmas Day. The opening of the book of Exodus tells for sure a story about "difference" between the Egyptians and the Israelite nation who live as guests there.
You could read Parashat Shmot and focus on the terrible consequences of difference -- intolerance, xenophobia, genocide. No question that's the screaming message. In Egypt, the Israelites were not simply different. They were other, foreign, frightening, unknown.
But there is also another side of the story, which I'm titling here the "plus side of otherness." You see it in the characters of the midwives who refuse to kill Israelite newborns, in Pharaoh's daughter who rescues the Hebrew boy from the Nile, and in Moshe himself.
Which midwives did Pharoah order to carry out the terrible order against the baby boys? Depending on how you "vowel" the Hebrew consonants, they were either "Hebrew midwives" or "midwives of the Hebrews." When Moshe went out as a young man and saw the Egyptian taskmaster beating the slave, did he know he was "going out to his brothers?" The narrator lets us know, but at no point does Moshe or anyone else identify him as a Hebrew.
The text's ambiguity suggests that the midwives and Moshe understand themselves as outsiders in a power structure. Or perhaps as both inside and outside, as majority and "other." This is probably why the midrash names Pharaoh's own daughter -- nameless in the Torah -- "Batya", or "daughter of Adonai." Somehow she too was an outsider, even in the palace.
These characters who are outside or other are the ones who can step outside, or to the side, and see things without being blinded by their group identity. And from seeing, they act. They aren't wholly defined by any group, so the midwives and Moshe and "Batya" can act in solidarity with any group.
To me, one of the best parts of being an American Jew is being other, being inside-outside. Yes, it is also dangerous to be other. But we also have the privilege of a different vantage point. We participate in American life, but have a built-in sensitivity for any group that is being oppressed. We participate in the economy and the culture, but we can take a stand against the excesses of materialism, worship of things, celebrity, and narcissism.
So being different at this time of year can be a great gift. The perspective we can have as partial outsiders is not just a difference to be appreciated or "respected." It can be edgy and subversive, and make others uncomfortable. Embrace it, and don't give it up.
Last week on-line and in shul, I talked about the hinge in time between the age of the great Fathers and Mothers of Genesis, and the time after. "May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe" is the blessing we give our sons on Shabbat evenings. Like who? But the message is that even Ephraim and Menashe had the potential to make as much difference as their famous ancestors.
The hand of their grandfather on their heads is important. How else will our Ephraims and our Menashes know what their spiritual legacy is?
At the beginning of Parashat Shmot, it's now several generations later and the Israelites are truly alone, seemingly leaderless, and enslaved. Before even God responded, it was the younger generation that stepped in and stepped up.
Specifically, Miryam and then Moshe. In the first chapter, two midwives named Shifra and Puah refused to carry out Pharaoh's order to kill all the male babies. According to the midrash, these were none other than Yocheved and Miryam. Mother and daughter. Just as when Moshe is born, the two work together to hide him, send him to safety, and arrange for him to be nursed by his mother.
Then in the second chapter, we are told that "Moshe grew and went out to his brothers." This is clearly Moshe as a young man, a teenager, going out and seeing the world for the first time with eyes able to see. He takes actions, killing the Egyptian taskmaster beating the Hebrew slave, intervening in a fight between two Israelites. He reels from the consequences -- Pharaoh's anger, the Israelites' rejection of his help.
It's right after these acts that God judges that the time is ripe to get involved. So the first message is: Even at the most unlikely time, the new generation may be ready.
We could compare the two sets of actions, by Miryam and by Moshe. Moshe takes bold action out of a sense of justice. But he is alone, and in the end he flees to sort out who he is. He names the child born to him in Midian Gershom, "for I have (before and still) been a stranger (ger) in a strange land" -- in Egypt as well as Midian. Who am I, asks Moshe.
Miryam, by contrast, comes across a firm young woman who plans, acts, and succeeds. She has her mother, who I can imagine is the one who has taught her how to take a stand, and who works with her side by side.
I have incredible confidence in teenagers, particularly. I believe, because I've seen it, that teens are capable of responsibility, of taking on a cause and seeing it through. The necessary ingredient is what Miryam had and Moshe didn't: a guide from an older generation. A guide or mentor who knows how to strike the balance between coaching and guiding, and letting the younger person truly take responsibility.
There is a lot of talk about empowerment of young people. It means more than giving them the right to make certain decisions. It's also about equipping them, and initiating them. It's an intergenerational process. It works all the time on teams, in sports. It's the same thing with the rest of life. Give a young person a spiritual guide, someone to talk to and work with on matters of justice and kindness. Then I have no doubt that everywhere we look we'll see Miryam, and we'll see Moshe.