The office is closed on Mondays.

The Rabbi’s Rave Parsha Va’era, Shemot (Exodus) 6:9 – 9:35

The Rabbi’s Rave

Parsha Va’era – Shemot (Exodus) 6:9 – 9:35

In last week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh with a message that has resonated through the ages: Shalach et-ami, “Let My people go.” (Exodus 5:1) Pharaoh, who never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, refuses to accept the face-saving alternative of allowing the Israelites to leave for three days of worship in the wilderness. This will lead God to send Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh once again. But now the time has come for God to actively intervene and break the impasse. In Parsha Va-era, God begins the plagues that will lead to the Israelites’ freedom.

But just as we are beginning to lean forward in anticipation of the action, we are reminded that the Israelites “would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage”. Let’s also remember that Pharaoh responded to Moses plea by intensifying the Israelites’ suffering–demanding that they make bricks without the necessary straw!  What strategy would you have suggested to Moses and Aaron for dealing with the dispirited people and the unrelenting Pharaoh? Was it time to be gentle or tough?

We have no shortage of examples in world politics today about these very choices. Iran is in the midst of a citizen uprising. The sanctions lifted by the West in exchange for a cessation of Iran’s nuclear program have not yielded tangible benefits for the Iranian people and they have taken to the streets. The Iranian Pharaohs have responded with violence against their own people. This week the two Koreas made a deal to allow North Korean athletes to compete at the Winter Olympics. The South Koreans held out a carrot and received assurances (for what they are worth) that they are not a target of North Korea’s nuclear missiles.

Gentle or tough? Which is the correct path?

Let’s look at what our tradition says. Rashi introduces a midrash that says this charge to Moses and Aaron commanded them to deal with the people with patience and restraint and to deal with Pharaoh with respect. Surprising? Not really. This advice reflects the rabbinic conviction that the principles of Judaism require that we show respect for others and faith in the possibility of change. And so convinced are the rabbis that this is the proper approach to interpersonal–and international–relations that they feel it applies even to this extreme situation of slaves and dictator.

The Jerusalem Talmud takes this approach one step further, saying that there is a concrete content to God’s charge.

Based on a verse in Jeremiah, this opinion suggests that God’s charge here is the commandment to the Israelites that requires the seventh-year freeing of their future slaves. And what is the reasoning behind this Talmudic view? It stems from the conviction that the basic requirement for the Israelites to be freed from Pharaoh and to become a nation is a commitment by them to act differently if they had slaves–and by extension toward anyone over whom they had power. The Rabbis who wrote this bit of Talmud, after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., teach that empowerment must include empathy and responsibility toward others.

These are the lessons, but what is the reality? Judah Halevi in his Kuzari has the king of the Khazars ask the rabbi this very question: Will the Jewish people–once they return to their land and are freed from being the victims of foreign regimes–not victimize those who live under their rule, as many other peoples do? Today it is we, the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, who have the awesome responsibility of supplying the answer to that question with regard to peoples under Israeli authority.

Is our treatment of the Palestinian people (and I say our treatment because I consider every Jew a member of Klal Yisrael, the worldwide collective of the Jewish people) in keeping with this teaching of our sages?

How can we claim to honor the teachings that have guided our people for centuries while at the same time we are guilty of doing certain things in the West Bank that have virtually no security value and denigrate the dignity of other human beings over whom we have power. The humiliation of Palestinian citizens by IDF soldiers at checkpoints between Palestinian villages and within Palestinians cities are well known. Israel has separate roads for Palestinians; thousands of Palestinians arrested under administrative detention; confiscation of Palestinian property for Jewish settlements; destruction of Bedouin homes and villages for an expanding Jewish population, administrative home demolitions; covert protection for Jewish settlers who harass Palestinians tending their agricultural fields; preventing Israelis who marry Palestinians from living in Israel; and the impending deportation of tens of thousands of Africans who have fled famine and war in their home countries?

I am a Zionist, a lover and passionate defender of Israel, as our congregation knows all too well, but how can I remain silent while my homeland indulges in actions that cause hardship to other people suffering oppression? The fact that compared to other countries in the region Israel is, at times, a paragon of moral virtue does not obviate the fact that we have shamed ourselves as a Jewish state that originally sought to be a nation not like other nations and that the Zionist enterprise would fashion a society based on a prophetic vision of social justice. Instead, we have created a moral morass.

The passage that appears in the Torah more than any other, and it is based on our own experience as slaves in Egypt, is; “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We would do well to remember it.


Bethesda Jewish Congregation

Bethesda Jewish Congregation