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 – Va’era

Image: Egyptian tomb painting. Photo by Souza_DF/Pixabay.

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) continues the saga of the struggle between God and Pharaoh. It deals with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy, the obstinacy of Pharaoh, and the first seven plagues.

The story of Exodus has had deep resonance for people in time of trouble. Enslaved people in each generation have seized upon it for hope.

Beyond the familiar story, what can we learn from this portion of the Torah? Here are some contemporary divrei Torah that explore parashat Va’era:

A Message for Moses and America: “Never Give Up” by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Take a Deep Breath by Rabbi David Ackerman

Elisheva: Challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Earning Our Luck by Rabbi Marc Katz

Sight Words by Anita Silvert

Executive Orders Based on Fear Won’t Work. Ask Pharaoh. by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

The Moral and Historical Imperatives of Exodus by Rabbi Jason Strauss

 

Shabbat Shalom! Va’era

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) continues the saga of the struggle between God and Pharaoh. It deals with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy, the obstinacy of Pharaoh, and the first seven plagues.

Beyond the familiar story, what can we learn from this portion of the Torah? Here are some divrei Torah that explore parashat Va’era:

On Plagues and Hardened Hearts – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Double Vision – Rabbi Dan Ornstein

Spirits in a Material World – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Vaera and God’s Many Names – Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

Moses was Twice a Refugee – Rabbi Joshua Stanton

Does God Hear Prayer? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Kicking It Up a Notch – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

And two of my own:

It’s Not About Us

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Va’era: It’s Not About Us

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

There's an Easy Way?
There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.