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Parshat Shemot: Ancient Story, Contemporary Meaning

12/24/2021 10:38:17 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

The Exodus narrative that we begin reading about this week, is such a powerful story that it has been used as a model of inspiration to many freedom campaigns. Below are a few examples of why the Exodus saga has and continues to have such relevance.

I provide them for you to ponder and think about in terms of your own social action work.
    1.    On January 14, 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave the speech “Religion and Race,” at a conference of the same name that assembled in Chicago, Illinois. 

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” 
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” 

With these words, Rabbi Heschel invites us to understand Moshe’s struggle against Pharoah as a matter of human rights and social justice. 
    2.    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: On Not Obeying immoral Orders

Then there are the two midwives, Shifra and Puah, who refuse to carry out Pharoah’s order to drown all the newborn Israelite boys. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that while we do not know much about them: “What we do know, however, is that they refused to carry out the order: “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (1: 17). This is the first recorded instance in history of civil disobedience: refusing to obey an order, given by the most powerful man in the most powerful empire of the ancient world, simply because it was immoral, unethical, inhuman.” 
Here Rabbi Sacks reframes the refusal to follow the immoral orders of Pharaoh as part of a 
historical struggle that demands that we disobey immoral leaders, even if they come from those occupying high office.  
    3.    Rabbi Brent Spodek, “No Monsters, No Messiahs”

The Holy One famously hardens Pharaoh’s heart 10 times, bringing plague after plague after plague, every time Pharaoh rejects the call to let the people go.
God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart 10 times in order to bring the Israelites out of Egypt; God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again and again so that Moses, and all of us who learn from his life, would know that working for change is hard and frustrating and demands awesome persistence and discipline. Moses made a name for himself with his outbursts of passion, but he didn’t make a difference until he had a plan and he stuck to it.

By making Moses march off to Pharaoh again and again and again, the Master of the Universe taught him that the only way for humans to effect any real change in the world is through incredibly difficult work. We all want to believe there will be a messiah who will fix the mess we are in as quickly as Moses killed the Egyptian who was beating on the Hebrew. Maybe in the hereafter, but not in the here and now.

Rabbi Spodek’s read of the events in Egypt is brilliant. It allows us to learn something positive from Pharoah’s obstinacy.  It does not matter whether or not Pharaoh was stubborn or if  God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Sometimes we make change hard by our own choices and other times, there are outside forces that make it difficult. The point is, not to give up.

I will end this survey with an insightful comment by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. 

“The Hebrew Bible speaks of a God who not only loves, but who loves precisely those who are otherwise unloved – the younger rather than the elder; the weak, not the strong, the few, not the many.”

This quote provides a unifying theory for the points made above and, hopefully, an inspiration to imitate God.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Barry Gelman

Sun, September 24 2023 9 Tishrei 5784