Shmot 2017-Remarks on the weekend of the Presidential inauguration and the Women’s March
There have been so many thoughts going through my mind this week, as there has been for months, recognizing that we are a divided country, with many different ways of looking at the world in which we live. And I know that that extends to this room-there is no uniform response to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Jew and how both of those identities impact on how we understand leadership and policy.
On one hand therefore, I thought that I should speak about something in today’s parasha that is a timeless idea-maybe how the Jews went from being a family in Genesis to a people now in Exodus. Or to talk about the love and concern that Miriam showed for her baby brother Moses. Basically, something meaningful, but innocuous.
But you and I know, that if Judaism can’t speak to the issues of the day, as well as the timeless issues in our lives, then Judaism, and Jewish life, will remain an “extracurricular activity”-not something that is integrated into the being of who we are. And I certainly didn’t become a rabbi to remain on the sidelines of how we see the world.
Now, who we are, of course impacts how we see and understand our Jewish texts and their connection to the world. None of us come to Torah without our thoughts and our experiences to be the prism through which we understand our sacred and holy text.
So today, as I share my thoughts on Shmot, I do so with humility. I am a person, not just a rabbi, not just the rabbi, and have my own thoughts and opinions on the world, and yet because I am a rabbi, YOUR rabbi, I believe it is my sacred duty to weave the words of our Torah in a way that all of us can hear it, but I still share what I believe flows from Torah into our world, not our world into Torah.
As I look at this week’s parasha, and witness the rise of a new leader as well as the significant acts of protest against that leader, I can’t help but feel that, like so often, the Torah was written to be read exactly at the right moment for this parasha asks us to confront leadership and our reactions to it.
Let me state from the outset-I do not believe that President Trump is Pharoah. However, to not explore issues of what happens when a new leader arises or the concerns of a constituency, would be a disservice to our Torah. So what does Torah say?
At the beginning of the parasha we read: A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.And he said to his people, “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 fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
We have all read this phrase many times and we immediately know what is going to happen next. There will be rebellion by Moses, the Israelites will escape, and they will be on their way.
But this morning, I want to explore three questions:
How do we understand Pharoah and what does that say about us…What is the role of protest in Judaism, especially in connection to this parasha, and finally, how do we respond to our world?
Scholar Daniel Roth gives tremendous insight into how to understand Pharoah, depending on perspective. He teaches that Prof. William Propp (Anchor Bible on Exodus, p. 133), describes Pharaoh as a young, insecure, xenophobic demagogue who created the historically preposterous myth of an Israelite demographic threat for his own selfish political gains.
And there are those who saw Pharaoh as the exact opposite – a responsible national hero for his people. The Israelites, who buried their dead in Canaan and whose hearts were towards Canaan, were a serious threat of a fifth column in the larger Egyptian – Canaanite conflict. Thus Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites to rebuild the wall around Egypt that parts of which had been destroyed during the war.
“Which is the simple ‘factual’ reading of the text,” Roth asks? “The answer, of course, is it depends on who you are and how you choose to look at it and how are you getting your information. We know that all of us are reading and trusting very different news sources that interpret Trump and the world in very different manners. One of the important challenges of anyone attempting to avoid further, deeper divides would be to read the news they generally do not trust, with respect and curiosity. This should never be at the expense of advocating passionately for each side’s read of reality, but to do so in the knowledge that there may be other interpretations.”
And so this brings me to the next question-
How you understand the texts of the day of course influences your perspective on the world and your ability to speak out. Clearly we know that as a people, we have always found a way to do so-from the time of Pharoah to today-Jews that have protested all leaders-leaders who protested for civil rights, leaders of the Soviet Union who were enslaving our people; people who protested Obama during the Iran deal negotiations; people who protested the UN last week following the abysmal security council vote. And this idea of protest comes directly from our Torah.
But the question is to know when to protest-
As Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky shared,
It is difficult to decide when, where, and under what circumstances one should defy the wishes or policies of leaders. The choice is simple when a leader calls for the murder of innocents (think Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein) but it is much more difficult when there are leaders whose personalities or approaches we find objectionable. Are those with whom we disagree by definition evil? What are we to do when, for example, a president acts in such a way that it might imperil our security or the security of an ally? And what should we do if we find that nominees for key cabinet positions are objectionable to us? Do we write to our representatives and ask them to exert pressure on our behalf? Or do we declare that those leaders are illegitimate or call for revolution? (something that we have witnessed during this and other recent elections).”
One thing that I know we don’t do, is engage in violent protest (though the Torah would argue the opposite…remember, the 10 plagues will soon be upon us for the sake of justice)
So we must turn to later in our parasha and further in our Torah to understand that many responses that we might see today are in line with our tradition-that we don’t need to sit back if we determine injustice. We recall how Moses beat an Egyptian task master that was beating an Israelite slave. No one knew that Moses was a Hebrew and yet he, spoke up on behalf of the voiceless, a transformative moment. We recall the Hebrew midwives, who defied Pharoah’s decree of killing all the baby boys, and found ways to ensure that they, along with the girls, lived as well-a reminder that each of us have the power to make a difference; Or we recall later on the daughters of Tzelophchad, who, upset about the inheritance laws petitioned to Moses and because of their work and values, the laws, FROM GOD, were changed. But we also saw that the Korach rebellion against Moses was done in a way that was perceived as physical, didn’t result in a change, all it resulted in were the followers of Korach being swallowed up.
So how does this apply to us? How do we understand these issues as they relate to our new president but also, and just as important, a conversation about ideas in this country or elsewhere-
First-As one of our members shared on FaceBook yesterday, “I watched today! I’m not happy about the result, but I don’t think it’s the time to turn our backs. Now is the time to watch even more closely than ever, and to act – not react. Whether this is his intention or not, Trump is causing people to finally pay attention to a system that many Americans have ignored, thinking that we can leave decisions to our elected officials and trust that they’ll support our views. If you want unity in this country, don’t just go out there and protest, but do something about it. Learn the issues, study the views on both sides, and start by making change in your local communities. Connect with people. Don’t cut friendships just because someone voted for other side. That will continue the divide in our nation. It also won’t help to sit here and complain – and then gloat when something doesn’t go right for the opposition. Get involved. And Be Nice!”
Second-Remember that it is in our Jewish tradition to Pray with our feet-No matter what you believe, you can speak-use your voice, used your legs, use your power; just don’t use violence. Like Moses and Aaron, approach your leaders, talk about what is bothering you, walk the walk. People have asked me, why am I going to the Women’s March this afternoon? The answer is simple-it is not in opposition to President Trump, it is an affirmation of my values. If President Trump affirms those values then it is simple-we are in line; if not, then I will use my voice, as my Jewish and my American tradition compels.
And finally, I will use prayer-deep prayer-to think about what it is, that is important.
Prayer can take place in a variety of forms-it can be linking our Jewish values and our American values as in the prayer for our country and then understanding where that comes from by recalling important moments in history. Last Monday, on MLK day, on the streets of historic Philadelphia, I showed my children the Liberty Bell, the Constitution center including key documents from the national archives about presidential power, and Betsy Ross’ house. I thought about what it meant to be an American. I thought about the chain of tradition of our leaders. I thought about the importance of what each one brings to the White House, knowing that I will never, and have never, agreed with all of their policies but in thinking about what is important, I clarify when it is important to use my voice.
But transformative prayer also can happen in public and that is why I was so honored to give the invocation this week at City Hall to the NYC City Council. Here is a bit of what I shared:
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Perhaps in God’s wisdom, God is trying to show us that a leader may chart the way, may point out the road to lasting peace, but that many leaders and many peoples must do the building.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement regarding leadership is a crucial one during this time of the year. As we are just days past the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and in anticipation of a new President, at a time of a deeply divided nation, we recognize that all of us must come together to find ways to commit and re-commit ourselves to bringing the world together, even through our disagreements. We might not all agree on all policies, but I know we agree in the human dignity of each person and that each person was created in the image of God and that demands a sense of respect and love.
And so, we pray:
Heavenly God, who desires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You, we thank You for giving us the opportunity to be in the presence of one another. We ask that you Grant us the wisdom to truly understand that all of humanity is created equally in Your image, since “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Open our hearts to stand with those who need our love and support.
In our tradition we ask God to give us the strength to l’taken olam, to perfect the world and so today, we must understand that in a world torn apart because of differences, this sanctuary and our community must be the bastion of wisdom about which Eleanor Roosevelt was speaking. Amen.
So-we begin the book of Exodus where we see a new leader; where we see the struggles of people and their response, we acknowledge that how each of us view the world might be different, but we must respect one another enough to allow the healthy conversations and peaceful, and often necessary protests to ensue. When a new leader is appointed in the Torah we say “Chazak veEmatz”-may you be strong and resolute.
So-in conclusion, I offer selections of a prayer of strength to President Trump, written by my colleague, Rabbi Matt Gewirtz.
Dear President Trump,
My Tradition encourages me to pray for our appointed and elected government leaders.
You are indeed the President of our United States. You were elected by the system, which has elected presidents since our inception as a Nation.
But, for today, I do what my people have done over the millennia. I pray for you, President Trump.
I pray for the health of your body, Mr. President. I pray for your health so that you can endure the rigors of running our country. I pray that you sleep enough to be clear minded, eat balanced enough so you have the energy to make it through each day; and take care of your physical vessel, so that you have the fortitude to navigate the weariness of being demanded in ways you have never experienced before in your life. So, Mr. President, I pray for your physical health.
I pray for the well being of your family as well, Mr. President. You have sacrificed a lot of your time, as you have built your business and now you will be pulled away in the most taxing ways. I pray that your youngest son is able to maintain the same level of privacy and respect children of the White House have received in past years. I pray that your wife and adult children will love and support you in ways, which help you serve our country. They, too, will sacrifice in the next four years.
I pray for the health of your mind, Mr. President. I pray that you are able to stay focused on that which counts the most. I pray that you are not diverted by the chaos that is politics.
Finally, I pray for your spirit, Mr. President.
Yes, I pray for your spirit. I pray for it to give birth to deep wisdom, discernment and insight. I pray for your spirit to be touched by all kinds of people, especially those who have been made to be afraid. I pray that your soul be touched by the sense of “otherness”. You are uniquely positioned to embrace the weak in a way which could change us for the better and forever. Your spirit can achieve all of that, Mr. President. So triple down on your own spirit and I will pray for it and you every day.
You are the president of the United States. And thus, you are my president. You can change my life for the better. You can change our fractured country for the better. You can change my family’s life for the better. You can change our world for the better. May my prayers be answered.
And may God Bless You and the United States of America. Shabbat Shalom