D’var Torah ~ Parshat Va-eira
January 13, 2018
Rabbi Sarah Marion
Upon exploring various writings and commentaries in preparation for this morning’s D’var Torah, I came across a fascinating analysis of the Egyptian Pharaoh of this week’s Torah portion that I had never before encountered. The Book of Jubilees, which is an ancient Jewish commentary on the Bible that dates back to the 2nd century BCE, describes a historical perspective not often shared or perpetuated. According to this text, the Pharaoh of our Exodus story came to power upon the death of his predecessor, who died in a battle against the Canaanites. The Israelites in Egypt, as we know, originated from Canaan, and throughout their time in Egypt, maintained their perception of Canaan as their homeland. And so, the Pharaoh of our Exodus story feared that if Egypt were to go to war again with Canaan, the Israelites living under his purview might join the other side, and fight against Egypt in a war between the nations. Therefore, in order to protect his people, Pharaoh decided to enslave the Israelites, and then ordered them to build a wall, thereby forcibly enclosing them within Egyptian borders. Though within this context Pharaoh remains a tyrant for the Israelite people, he also emerges as a protectionist and national hero for the Egyptians, looking out for their own best interests. In this way, Jubilees sheds some light upon Pharaoh’s “Egypt first” strategy that caused so much pain and hardship for our Israelite ancestors.
Of course, this is not the understanding of Pharaoh that we, as contemporary Jews, tend to emphasize. Pharaoh, for us – and as described in this week’s Torah portion – is the epitome of evil – a ruthless ruler who enslaved the Israelites, hardened his heart against their suffering and instigated devastating plagues upon his own people in order to maintain his power. The Anchor Bible goes so far as to describe him as an “insecure, xenophobic demagogue who creates the historically inaccurate myth of the threat of a minority people for his own selfish political gain.”
One leader, generating diametrically opposed opinions and understandings of his actions, traits and intentions. Sound familiar? Once again, we find ourselves reliving the experiences of our ancestors, as we see the same conflicts of opinion about our current leader continuously playing out in the media, on our Facebook pages, and within this congregation.
No doubt this has been a challenging moment in time for us as Americans, and for us as a Jewish community. It is a challenging time to be a rabbi – they didn’t teach me in school how to navigate these tricky political waters; there were no rabbinic classes on how to stay true to one’s values while ensuring that all who enter our synagogue doors feel welcomed, respected, and heard. And yet, the political frictions of past year – within this community and without – have been a tremendous learning experience.
Over the past year, our congregation has responded to the current political and social climate in a variety of ways. We have experienced sermons, gatherings, and Shabbat services around social and politically charged issues, and these efforts have ignited passions and emotions on all sides. I’ve heard of objections that we have strayed either too far to the left – or have not ventured far to the left enough.
In recent weeks, our clergy and executive leadership has begun to have conversations about how we can better hear and embrace the diversity of voices and perspectives within our midst. This was the topic of a session at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention this past winter – which several of our staff members and lay leaders attended. One of the most important takeaways, I understand, is the benefit of fostering constructive, community-wide dialogue that allows the opportunity for all voices and perspectives to be heard. We have just begun to contemplate how we might do this within our congregation in ways that will be conducive to conversation, understanding, and healing – If you have any ideas, or would like to be involved in such efforts, please let us know. At the very least, if you’ve felt isolated within this community, or are questioning whether or not there is a place for you here, I hope you will seek out a member of the clergy or leadership, so that we can begin a conversation, and a path towards greater understanding and partnership.
Regardless of how Pharaoh is viewed in the Jewish imagination – we cannot deny the “hardening of his heart” against the Israelite people, which is repeated over and over again within this week’s Torah portion, and leads to a slew of plagues that increase the pain, isolation and devastation for both Israelites and Egyptians. In this challenging political climate, we must be especially careful not to “harden our hearts” against viewpoints that are contrary to our own – an action that will only increase the plagues of anger, resentment and frustration that are already so pervasive within our society and within our communities. It is noteworthy and telling, I think, that conflicting opinions of Pharaoh have been recorded and maintained within our tradition – an indication, I think, of our tradition’s deep and ongoing respect for diversity and difference of opinion.
Each year, the teachings and legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. maintain their significance and relevance to our modern day struggles. In an interview in 1966, King discussed the dangerous consequences of a social reality in which people feel unheard. The African American riots of his time, he suggested, were the “language of the unheard” – they were the violent consequence of a decade-long American failure to hear the economic and social plight of the black community.
When we harden our hearts towards that with which we disagree, we hinder our ability to fully hear the reality of another person’s experience, and we create harmful schisms and fractures within our community. I hope in the coming months, we can forge new pathways that will enable us to better hear, understand and appreciate the diversity that exists among us. Indeed, in more ways than one, we are still in Egypt, and there still remains is a better place, a Promised Land… and, as the poet Michael Seltzer has correctly deduced, the only way to get from here, to there, is, indeed, by joining hands, and marching together.