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Parsha Bo, Shemot (Exodus) 10:1 – 13:16

The Rabbi’s Rave

Parsha Bo, Shemot (Exodus) 10:1 – 13:16

The Hardened Heart

In this week’s Parsha, Bo, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so he will not release the Israelites from their slavery.

I read this verse and I take note. Like the rulers of Egypt, there are hardened hearts everywhere in our national leadership, our national discourse, even within our families. What are the possibilities for softening the hardened heart and how do we foster change and repentance?

In Parsha Bo, Exodus 9:12, we read a verse that has presented philosophers with a quandary for as long as people have been reading the Bible.

“And Adonai hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as Adonai had spoken to Moses.”

The usual question surrounding this verse is something along the lines of: If God takes over and hardens the heart of Pharaoh, then what is the nature of free will?  But, at this moment in our history I hear another question; How do we soften the hearts of our leaders and their supporters, so that they can truly hear the “cries of the people” and act in ways that liberate rather than oppress?

What is the dynamic of social and political change? How do we act so that the voice of “we the people” is clear, loud, and strong? What are the words we need to say to create better relationships and a better world, and how do we say it?

Maybe a good place to start is by listening to the words of Larry Kushner (God was in This Place & I, Did Not Know). “The rate at which Pharaoh’s heart becomes sclerotic is precisely the rate at which Israel’s heart begins to lighten.”

In other words, when we begin to act “as if we are free” even when we feel trapped or hopeless, that is the beginning of change, both internal and external. If we begin our conversations and our actions coming from a place of fear, paranoia, or outright hysteria, the chances for success are very limited. The successful struggle with evil, starts with expressions of love and peace.

 

Yesterday, I participated in an action designed to soften the hearts of our leaders. If you had been there you would have experienced it, I believe, as an expression of joy and love as well as righteous anger. The action was one of non-violent, passive, and conscientious resistance on behalf of the so called “Dreamers,” young adults who were brought here as young children with their parents who entered the US illegally. Approximately 800,000 young people now face deportation (and about a dozen a day are already being deported as we speak) from the only home country they have ever really known. A child who was brought to the United States, as far in the past as 17 years ago when the first DACA-like regulations were set up, was registered into the program allowing them to stay here on a renewable visa. These children who grew into young adulthood, graduated from U.S. public schools and universities, got a job or started a business, paid taxes, etc. now face deportation as their status expires. While legally, at this moment, they can apply to renew their status, most fear going to the immigration authorities. Add to this the estimated one million young people in the same situation who never applied for the program, who are American in every way except for the paper work, and you get an idea of the scope of the problem.

While surveys show that over 80% of Americans believe that the Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the US (86% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans) Congressional infighting surrounding the Federal budget has made the “Dreamers” into a political football. Human lives have been turned into a bargaining chip.

It is immoral and as a Jew I cannot stand idly by while my neighbor bleeds. (Vayikra 19:16)

The prophet Isaiah teaches us that in confronting injustice we should: “Shout aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a shofar.” The Talmud in tractate Yevamot 87B says: Silence is akin to complicity.”

The most oft repeated mitzvah in the Torah (24 times) are variations on this core principle: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Vayikra 19:33)

How we treat immigrants is central to our faith as well as to our history as a people. How many lives could have been saved if US immigration policy in the 1930s and 40s had opened wide the “Golden Door?”

So with all of that driving me, yesterday I participated in a demonstration on Capitol Hill, and I was arrested along with 81 other rabbis and Jewish activists. The action was sponsored by the Bend the Arc, the Anti-Defamation League, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and T’ruah. Hundreds of supporters, not only of the aforementioned groups but immigration rights groups and a balcony full of Dreamers, surrounded us in support.

We peacefully sat on the floor of the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, joined by Reps. Sandy Levin (D Mich) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D Fla), sang songs, gave short speeches, and taught Torah.

You can see the video of the demonstration here;

https://www.facebook.com/senatorsanders/videos/10156675637052908/

and my arrest here;

https://www.facebook.com/TempleSinaiDC/videos/1862502807095521/

This action had its desired effect. It was the lead story of NBC Evening News and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, and on multiple web news pages and printed newspapers. This event raised the consciousness of the nation and the world.

The charge was “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding” in a public building, a simple misdemeanor. We were taken in a Capitol Police van to a warehouse near Nationals Park in Flexicuffs, which we had to wear for the entire 4-5 hours in custody, processed, fingerprinted, and released after paying a $50 fine.

Both protestors and police handled themselves with respect and a lot of good natured banter was shared.

So, if these words have moved you, what can you do to join the struggle against modern day Pharaohs who oppress the immigrants who have come here to escape hunger and poverty as the B’nai Israel did when they immigrated to Egypt to escape famine?

Write to your representatives in Maryland or Virginia TODAY and insist on a CLEAN Dream Act. A bill unencumbered by attachment to budget or other immigration issues. Call your friends in other states and ask them to do the same. Cry aloud and raise your voice, until we are heard.

Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer

Bethesda Jewish Congregation

Bethesda Jewish Congregation