In Every Generation, We Must Leave Egypt

Image: “The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies. A pharaoh in a chariot, smashing many small military figures. Painting on wood. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Public Domain.

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

Pesachim 116b

This very famous passage of Talmud is quoted in the Passover Haggadah. On the face of it, it commands us to do the impossible: to travel to Egypt, sometime about the 13th century BCE, so that we can personally experience the Exodus. I’ve been thinking about it ever since we began to read the Exodus story in Parashat Shemot a few weeks ago.

In every generation there is an Egypt – actually, a series of Egypts. The Jewish project, the path of Torah, is a constant effort to leave the confines of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt, which also means “a narrow place.” Whether it is a geographical location, a moment in history, or a state of mind, each generation has the task of leaving the narrow place for something more expansive, more risky, more free.

What narrow places bind us today? I suggest that one of them here in the United States is the narrow place of institutional racism. I used to think that if I was “not a racist” then I’d done my job. If I did not use the n-word, if I did not make people with brown skins use the back door or a special bathroom, if I did not talk disparagingly about how “they” had certain behaviors, etc. I was “not a racist” and I was doing OK.

I have come to understand that while that kind of racist person is a big problem, there is a much worse problem. That is the pervasive institutional racism that sees to it that people with brown skins do not enjoy the securities and opportunities that white people enjoy. I can walk into a store, or a hotel, or a synagogue and assume that I will be welcome as long as I behave myself. This is not true for a person who has darker skin. They will be questioned. They will be scrutinized. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. The people who do this will always have justifications ready for their behavior, but the consistency with which that behavior persists suggests that the justifications are a smoke screen.

Institutional racism is in the layout of our cities and it is embedded in our economy. From the 1940’s until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 African Americans were shut out of in the greatest wealth-building period in history, because they did not have the same access to mortgages and real estate as whites. You may say that was long ago, but the differences in income and personal wealth persist to this day. African Americans were hit harder by the 2008 Great Recession because they were more vulnerable than whites.

I could go on and on, talking about the institutional racism in our justice system, in education, in employment, in health care. I used to be a skeptic about these things. I used to think that the real problem was poverty. But I have become convinced from my reading that racism undergirds most of the serious issues facing the United States, poverty included, with the possible exception of climate change.

You might protest, “But rabbi, I’m white and I’m poor!” I do not deny that there are poor whites, and suffering whites. But I am more and more convinced that if we dealt with the institutional racism against Americans with brown skins, many things for whites would also improve. President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Truly equitable courts, truly equitable banks, truly equitable education institutions would not have leeway to mistreat anyone.

If we are to leave this Egypt, we must leave not only the racists behind, we must find a way to leave institutional racism. We must listen to black voices with the same respect we give white ones. We must take people at their word. We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must do things that do not come easily when we have grown up in this narrow place, this Egypt, in which inequalities seem “normal.”

This year, as I read the Torah portions of the Exodus story, Shemot, Va’era, Bo, and B’shalach, I pledge to challenge myself to leave this Egypt. I pledge to listen to voices of people with color with respect. I pledge not to interrupt either with my voice or my thoughts. I pledge to do my part to educate other whites about this issue. I pledge to speak up when I see something wrong, and to pay attention and respond when others speak up.

It’s a long road out of Egypt. It begins with my first step.

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Shabbat Shalom! – Shemot

Shemot means “names” and Parashat Shemot is indeed full of names. We begin perhaps the most famous Bible story of them all, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This is a full portion, with many different famous stories in it.

A few of these drashot also address the fact that this Shabbat falls on the evening after Inauguration Day in the United States. Having seen the Obama Era in U.S. History come to an end, and the Trump Era begin, it is good to take a moment to reflect.

Let’s see what our commenters make of this portion and/or this moment in history:

Shemot – Names by Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

Does the Presidency Have a Prayer? by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Know Your Past by Rabbi Jordan Parr

Each Life is a Novel by Rabbi Marc Katz

The Revolutionary Road to Marriage by Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Mother Who Bore 600,000 by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Names and Deeds by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Shabbat Shalom: Shemot

Image: Edward Poynter painting,1867 :  Israel in Egypt  Public Domain

This week we begin to read the book of Shemot (sh-MOHT.) It is also known by its Greek name, Exodus. In many ways, this is a familiar tale, but if we read carefully, new details and puzzles will emerge from almost every chapter.

Some divrei Torah on the opening parashah of Shemot:

Blood on the Line by Rabbi David Kasher

Shiphrah, Puah, Phyllis, Rebecca, and Liz by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

The Making of Moses by Rabbi David Kasher

The Mother Who Bore 600,000 by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Why Pharaoh felt Threatened by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Speaking Out, Even When it is Hard by G-dcast

Holding Out for a Hero? by Rabbi Marci Bellows

and two of my own:

Names & Deeds 

Zipporah is My Hero

 

Shabbat shalom!

 

 

 

 

Zipporah is My Hero

Image: A flint knife from Egypt, c.1000 BCE. This historical image held by Wellcome Images is available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Parashat Shemot has a curious little story in it, one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah.

Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. There is no mention of any conversion to Judaism. This gives us two alternatives:

  1. It wasn’t mentioned because she never converted.
  2. It wasn’t mentioned because of course she converted.

Traditional interpretations tend to go with #2. However, I am not so sure. Was the marriage of Moses and Zipporah an intermarriage? We have stories in midrash about how Yitro eventually converted to the religion of the Hebrews, but I am not aware of any such midrashim concerning Zipporah.

The story in Exodus 4:24-26:

So it happened on the way, at the lodging-place, that God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So he let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’

It looks like a fragment of a story, sandwiched in between God’s instructions to Moses and the little family’s arrival in Egypt. The pronouns make it particularly confusing, and I left them as written, because I thought you might enjoy puzzling over them.

To my eyes, it looks like Moses neglected to give Gershom a bris [ritual circumcision.] God was unhappy about this, so unhappy that He suddenly announced he was going to kill Moses. Zipporah stepped in and performed the bris, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ (?) feet. Then she said something very weird, and God left them alone. Zipporah, realizing that she’d said something weird, tried to clarify it.

All that’s really clear here is that Zipporah is the heroine of the tale, and Gershom was finally circumcised.

When I attend a bris for a family in which the mother is not Jewish, or the mother is a convert to Judaism, I like to tell her about Zipporah. We would not have made it out of Egypt had she not seized that piece of flint! And whether she was a convert to Judaism or not, she saved the whole nation of Israel.

Rabbi David Kasher has a fascinating take on this story, and did a better job of searching the midrashim. You can read his article on Parsha Nut.

Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

Sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not a single woman’s name in the list that opens Parashat Shemot. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women. But that’s too shallow a reading: after the list of men’s names, the portion is filled with the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism today.

In Chapter 1, we learn the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: Hebrew children survived because two women looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we learn the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! When she could hide him no longer, she put the infant in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was notorious for its ravenous crocodiles.

Miriam followed along on the bank watching over the baby boy. Midrash tells us that Moses’ sister had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. Nevertheless, imagine the nerve it took to follow along in the reeds, watching over that basket! There were dangers on the bank, too: crocodiles, snakes, and Pharaoh’s soldiers, yet young Miriam never abandoned her brother.

In Chapter 4, the young wife of Moses, Zipporah, watched her husband have a near-fatal encounter with God. She deduced that it had something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she took a knife and performed the circumcision herself. The story is very mysterious, but one thing is sure: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she herself was no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.

Names and Deeds

Moses in the Bulrushes
Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.