D'var Torah Shemot 5777
This week I found great wisdom in the confluence of events.
Earlier this week as we mourned Mrs. Schaalman and remembered Martin Luther King, Jr., I came across words during the Amidah--essential words from the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.” (5:24) You may remember that King turned to this prophetic hope in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Then, on Tuesday, I gathered with fellow clergy for some learning time, and one of my colleagues, Rabbi Limmer (from Temple Sinai) drew a link between the Rev. Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who grew closer together during the civil rights movement. Both possessed a passion for justice and took inspiration in each other’s love for Scripture, especially the prophets. King respected Heschel’s command of the prophetic books, like the aforementioned Amos. And Heschel loved how King patterned his struggle for civil rights after the narrative of our greatest prophet Moses and our ancestors, Israel, told throughout the Book of Exodus--which we begin tonight.
For good measure, I awoke today to a Facebook post by our friend Laurel Crown, who has gone down, with her daughter Ruby and others to join the Women’s March in Washington DC. Laurel included her son Isaac’s artistic rendition of King’s famous quote: “The arc of history bends towards justice.” And when Laurel replied to my response, she said she and Ruby would be down in Washington, “praying with their feet,” a comment coined by Rabbi Heschel, when he marched in Selma with Rev. Dr. King for voting rights.
Lots of compelling connections. Perhaps only serendipitous. But then again, I always believe Torah is on time with some bit of insight, reflecting a little synchronicity of meaning and purpose to help us wonder how we shall go forward into the newish world ahead--maybe with some uncertainty, maybe with some hope. Maybe with both.
Narratives that draw on great heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Joshua Heschel. Or stories that summon to consciousness our great prophets like Moses or Amos can be a great challenge Their ethic, their example may be hard to embody. But then again maybe the work is not so hard. Laurel and Ruby figured out how by praying with their feet. Isaac utilized his artistic abilities. And Nick, husband and dad, stood as witness to his family and their shared goodness. Lovely, everyday people doing their part in pursuit of justice. And this understanding, as will come as little surprise, is what this week’s Torah portion is about.
At the beginning of Exodus, we are told: “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them, they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17) Here, Pharaoh decrees that all baby boys born to Israelite slaves shall die. And the midwives Shifra and Puah refuse...because God would not sanction such ugliness and terror.
Some think Shifra and Puah are code-names for Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses respectfully. But others see them as ordinary women simply willing to do the right thing--appealing to a higher power and the grace of God and absolutely refusing to do the wrong thing. Perhaps Shifra and Puah were Hebrew, saving their own from Pharaoh's evil decree. Or perhaps they were Egyptian, going against their King’s wicked ways. Either way, Shifra and Puah exemplify non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, values that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel brought to life and that we--regular, ordinary people would be wise to practice should civil rights, or human rights--ours or our neighbors--be threatened, should unjust, immoral laws rule the day, should our political leaders practice prejudice that undermines the wholeness of our nation.
We all learned long ago in government class that we establish a government to make laws and prevent violence and anarchy, like we saw by a few on the streets of DC. And, I still have my copy of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. But well before social contract theory, there was Pirke Avot: “Rabbi Chanina, the chief of the priests said, pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since without the fear of them, humans would swallow one another alive.” (Avot 3:2)
Friends, most of the time we should follow the laws of the land. But sometimes laws are unjust. Sometimes laws discriminate. And such reality requires a moral response: non-violent resistance and civil disobedience--practiced by ordinary people like Shifra and Puah, practiced by you and me--letting our leaders know and the world know that sometimes we are called by a higher authority--the Source of all life that demands we heal the dignity injured by injustice. Even if doing so makes us uncomfortable. Even, if there are consequences that we pay as the price of freedom and mentschlikeit.
Shifra and Puah, everyday women, stood up against Pharaoh. They stood up against murder. They stood up for newborn male babies of an enslaved people. They stood up for the vulnerable. They stood up for their humanity. They stood against demonization. And, they fashioned for the world the virtues of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. They taught us injustice is a threat to justice and set a good example for us all about how to fight back right.
Reproductive rights and the sustainability of our planet hang in the balance. And, as our teeming shores turn away huddled masses yearning to breathe free and as a border wall threatens to supplant the legacy of Lazarus and Lady Liberty. And, as the call for “peace through strength” rings out more like a war anthem then a shir shalom. And, as cries for America First blindly (or brazenly) ignore the antiSemitism and white supremacy that marked our nation’s pre-World War II isolation and, in this era of “change,” seek new life--from Whitefish to Washington to Warsaw. We, my friends, must recognize the Jewish work ahead. To help our leaders govern justly and compassionately. To respect the many ways we can serve our nation. And, if we recognize wrongdoing, like Shifra and Puah, we must not stand idly by. So then let’s pray with our feet. Let us shine the light of compassion into the void. Let us bend that arc of history in the right direction. And, if so called, let us resist peacefully with moral force. And, let us wrestle injustice until justice rolls down like a mighty stream. May God bless us and guard us and empower our leaders for good. Amen.