Shmot – When Society is at Risk

This past week our nation faced, and continues to face, one of the gravest challenges since its birth.  The Capitol – the sacred seat of […]

This past week our nation faced, and continues to face, one of the gravest challenges since its birth.  The Capitol – the sacred seat of democracy – was attacked and overrun by a mob, incited by the President.  We are still reeling from the shock of this atrocity, feeling pain and anger, sadness and disbelief.  The tears we wept as we witnessed the unthinkable are fresh and real.  Where do we go from here?

We can only know where to go when we can say who we are. David Brooks captures a key piece of our American identity.  He writes: “Human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers. The mob that invaded that building Wednesday exposed the abyss. This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul.”  It is an important reflection, asking us to reflect on the spectrum ranging from savage, tribal and dangerous to lofty morality. We begin to answer “Where do we go from here? Can this be an inflection point which catalyzes change?” by reflecting on who we are.

The Torah helps us see all pieces of our humanity, understanding and warning us about our worst selves and moving us to moral heights.  The story of Exodus which we begin in our Torah readings contains all of this.

This week’s portion is about beginnings.  Beginnings are difficult and outcomes are always unsure.  This week’s portion calls upon us to witness the birth of the Jewish nation. Using the repeated phrase bnei yisrael the text lays out our national origins.  At first, we are Bnai Yisrael/sons of Israel, a group of individuals descended from our forefather, Jacob, who name was changed to Israel. Then the same term Bnai Yisrael is used a few verses later, not as sons of an individual, but as a nation, a people.  This marks the birth of a national identity. We are descended from a group with memories and spiritual legacies, but we have become a people as our numbers expand.

As we reflect on our birth as a nation, a piece of our emerging identity is rooted in pain and hatred.  Those origins stay with us and define us.  The text shares that a new King arises over Egypt and his hatred of us defines a piece of our birth as a nation.  From him we learn how leaders provoke fear of those who are different to enhance their power.  This moment teaches us the power of words to stoke hatred and affect destiny.  In fact, the first sentence spoken by a character in the narrative is Pharoah and it is full of lies and unfair characterizations. Listen to his words: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fight against us.”  His words ripple out to his people and are the beginning of centuries of torture and slavery.

Hateful words from despots existed before Pharoah, but this became the paradigm of national hatred directed at someone who is different.  Our birth story etches in our souls how words can turn us from one another, sowing fear, hatred, division, and resulting in devastating outcome. Words shape our destiny.  Sadly, we have witnessed over the past number of years how words can encourage division, and this week we witnessed how the words of the President and other national leaders incited a mob.  Words which hurt and divide have become a piece of our national life.  It has to change. Can this week of heightened awareness of the destructive power of words create a new course, one where we use words carefully and respond to hateful words with passion?

Words are also the catalyst of freedom.  Moses, who initially resists the call to speak to Pharoah, claiming “I am not a man of words,” finds the courage to speak truth to power, and says to Pharoah those famous words: “Let my People Go!”  Those words sit in our soul, define our essence and have been the call throughout the generations of all people who suffer.  The call to freedom, to ensure the dignity of every human, to resist injustice, are the words that need to define this inflection point in our country’s history as we ask, “Who are we as a nation?”

And there is another example of words catalyzing change. After generations of slavery, the Children of Israel find their voice and cry out to God.  Our commentators pick up on this detail, teaching that it was not until there was a collective cry that God acted.  We needed to find our voice and lift our words to create the dynamic that birthed the long and difficult process of freedom from Egypt.  This week we are lifting our voices in pain.  It is in the lifting of voices that change begins.  Words shape destiny.  Let’s think about our words – choosing them carefully and reflecting upon the values they communicate.

Yet words without deeds are meaningless.  The answer to the question, “Where do we go from here?” will be answered by our deeds.  The Exodus story is full of unsung heroes who collectively, with Moses’ leadership and God’s direction, changed the course of civilization.  The midwives who refused to follow Pharoah’s command to kill first-born males are the unsung heroes of the story.  They defy Pharoah because of their awe and commitment to God. That which was right overcame their fear of Pharoah and his power.  A piece of our birth as a nation is rooted in gratitude to those who, following the call of conscience, allowed us to reach our moral potential.

These past few weeks have been full of extraordinary examples of Americans who followed in the footsteps of the midwives.  Think about all the election officials and Secretaries of State on both sides of the aisle who would not yield to intense pressure and threats, and instead stood behind and upheld election results.

Think about the many Republicans who stepped forward and showed what moral leadership looks like. Moral leadership transcends differences in political belief and is the salve that will help us bind up our wounds. Those voices can change the trajectory of our destiny just as the midwives did.

What will the future of our nation be? Where do we go from here?  We follow the call to use our words to heal.  We lift up the unsung heroes and realize that rather than bowing to the pressure of power, coercion, desire to please or to conform, we too can answer to the voice of conscience and help change the arc of history.

Redemption and change come from cultivating to capacity to see one another and respond with compassion.  In the story of our birth, this lesson is taught powerfully by Pharoah’s daughter, who changes the destiny of humanity with an act of compassion. She goes to bathe in the Nile and spots a basket among the reeds and sends her slave girl to fetch it.  She opens the basket and sees a child, a boy, crying.  She says, “This must be a Hebrew child.”  She decides to bring the child into the palace and raise him as her own.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, who is watching nearby, steps forward and says she knows a woman who can nurse the baby, so Moses’ mother stays involved with her beloved son.

Think about this story.  Pharoah’s daughter has been raised in a home that despised and afflicted the Hebrews.  By bringing the baby into her home she defies her father, not just a political ruler, but a man considered to be a god.  There must have been terrible risks in what she did.  The Midrash drives this home by having all of the women with her reminding her she would be violating her father’s decree.  The Midrash is pulling our attention to what a heroic act this was, everyone around her was telling her not to do it, yet the daughter of Pharoah defies the order. Why did she do it?

The text says, va’ter’e/she saw him, va’tachmol alay she had pity/compassion for him.  When we see people and act out of compassion, everything changes.  Hatred melts, connections begin, and healing begins to emerge.  Her compassion and humanity lead her to save Moses’ life. Without her, there would be no Exodus. Where do we go from here?  We double down on compassion.  We see the humanity in everyone we encounter, especially those who are different than us.

And there is one more detail; she gives him a name, Moses, meaning “I drew him out of the water.”  When you give someone a name, you bestow dignity upon them.  Moses is not a slave, but a human worthy of dignity. In the Etz Chayim Torah, it teaches that in Egyptian this root means “son”.  Pharoah’s daughter made him a member of the family.  The opposite of turning someone to “other” is to take them into your home.  The name bestowed also charts a person’s course.  The commentator Sforno teaches that Moses’ name, to draw out, shapes his destiny.  As Pharoah’s daughter draws him out of the water, saving him from death, so too will Moses become a leader who will help pull people out of their calamity.

Pharoah’s daughter is not given a name in the Torah.  Subsequent tradition says that her name is Batya/daughter of God.  Our country needs to follow in the footsteps of Batya, acting with love for humanity and caring for those in need.  That is our highest morality.

What will the destiny of our country be?  It depends on us.

Will we be like Batya, seeing the humanity of others?

Will we allow compassion to define our essence and our attitude?

Will we be like the midwives, courageously pursuing justice, upholding conscience and valuing human life?

Will we lift our voices, allowing our pain to call for us to reimagine our best selves?

We have the power to transform pain into purpose.  I conclude with the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, written in 1965, but so relevant to this moment: [We must] “cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls…”  May we help make that happen.