January 16th, 2020
With this week’s Torah portion, we begin our annual journey into the book of Exodus. When we exited the book of Genesis, the small Israelite people were 70 strong. In the generations that have passed, that number increases to 600,000 of able-bodied men1 , meaning that their numbers had increased well above a million once including women, children, and the elderly. Over the course of 4 centuries, a small tribe of shepherds became a massive population in Egypt – one that a new Pharaoh, “who did not know [of] Joseph[‘s leadership that saved Egypt from the famine]”2 , finds suspicious and decides to enslave in order to oppress their growing influence. The Israelites are a rapidly growing population of foreigners within Egypt, a massive nation of shepherds, a profession that native Egyptians find detestable3 . This blatant xenophobia and suspicion of the other cannot be overlooked – as opposed to his predecessor, who I celebrated for his swift and comprehensive response towards an impending environmental crisis, this Pharaoh demonstrates some of the worst impulses of human behavior. Lamentably, this story, with his short historical memory and his mistrust of a large population of foreigners and their descendants, is all too familiar today – as is the cruelty displayed towards them.
In response to the cruel royal decree, a certain Levite woman violates Egyptian law and keeps her son in hiding – demonstrating case in point that simply because a human law is enforced and therefore “legal” does not make it good. Through her act of defiance against this law, the Israelites are granted their greatest leader: Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses. The Torah is clear through this narrative that in moments of desperation against oppressive regimes, Divine Justice supports the violation of them for the sake of human life. Furthermore, the child that Egyptians perhaps would refer to as “illegal” ended up in a place of privilege, thanks to the savviness of his mother and sister. Moses grows up the adopted grandson of Pharaoh himself! However, eventually Moses becomes disillusioned with his material comfort, and his outrage towards the cruel Egyptian taskmaster leads him to cold-blooded murder in plain sight. Fearing retribution, Moses flees Egypt to seek asylum in Midian. There he spends much of his adult life before being destined a prophet.
Moses’s selection by God as a prophet may seem puzzling to some – including to Moses, who angers God through his repeated protests towards his selection4 . Moses’s confusion is certainly understandable – in addition to being extraordinarily humble5 and understandably baffled at this Divine command, at the time, Moses is an over-the-hill, stuttering disgraced-prince-turned-outlaw living as a shepherd in a foreign land – it is worth asking, why Moses? Though murder is certainly not condoned in the Torah, it just so happens that God shares Moses’ outrage over the Egyptian cruelty towards the Israelites6 . Furthermore, Moses had already demonstrated a deep instinct for justice, shown in his swift defense of his future wife and sisters-in-law against hostile shepherds7 . Moses is neither a great warrior nor inspiring speaker. Despite his royal upbringing, he is an outcast living as a shepherd. In truth, Moses’s life beyond infancy is a violation of Egyptian law. For all of this, even Moses questions his fitness for leadership! The mighty task of liberating over a million slaves from the most powerful nation in the world by negotiating with the most powerful man in the world – left to an elderly, stuttering shepherd?
Our knowledge of the outcome can easily dull the power of this narrative.
Unlike Moses, most of us are not exiled murderers fleeing an absolute theocratic monarchy. In a democracy, we do not have to be called upon as prophets to dismantle corrupt institutions. Instead, we have the power to rise up as prophetic voices in the face of powerful and wealthy forces despite their overwhelming odds. There is a reason this text, the Jewish holy book of Exodus, has inspired liberation movements for centuries, Jewish and otherwise. We Jews are not commanded to remember this tale at Passover alone – we are commanded to recall it daily8 . Why is this so? Later commands give us the answer – empathy to foreigners around us, which is highlighted numerous times in the latter four books of the Torah9 , and extended to other marginalized beings, including widows and orphans10 , as well as to animals!
This comes together fascinatingly in the mitzvah of Shabbat, the two central themes of which are creation and the Exodus. At the same time that we marvel at God’s creation, sharing in the Divine observation of nature’s goodness, we are also to recall redemption and liberation from slavery. However, not only are we Jews, liberated from slavery, commanded to rest from our work; so are our employees, our animals, and the foreigners amongst us11 . This is what makes Shabbat truly holy – all are granted rest from their toils. These values, instilled in our people for centuries, are what inspired secular Jewish unionists to fight for a five-day work week in late 19th century America.
Ultimately, our Torah instills a hope within the Jewish people and the world – that oppression can be overcome by righteousness and truth, despite the odds, even when led by scrappy, flawed individuals. This foundational narrative, regardless of historical criticism by academics, created the most explicit “Jewish value” that can be deduced from a people as diverse and opinionated as ours – that any unjust, oppressive force can be stopped, and that any person is capable of leading the charge. Even our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, doubted himself throughout his leadership of the Israelites, and continued to persevere thanklessly until achieving his goal.
I had the pleasure of spending last Shabbat with Shamayim’s founder, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, who so eloquently described Judaism to my congregants as “a radical vehicle for social change” – and I would note that this nature is rooted in the narrative of liberation from Egypt. As we begin our spiritual trek into the wilderness in these coming weeks and months, I invite us to allow this narrative to motivate us to continue the march towards a brighter future.