I assume that, like me, you will have a couple of secular calendar dates echoing through your head this weekend: Tomorrow is January 6, four years from the infamous January 6 in 2020. And then on Sunday during the expected snow it will be January 7, grimly marking three full months since October 7.
Can our weekly Torah portion, Shemot, guide us through this weekend, or provide any solace?
The portion relates that Moses is instructed to take off his shoes beside the burning bush because he is “on holy ground”. So many of us, I know, felt the violation of “holy ground” as our capitol was overrun, violated and disrespected. Recalling Chanuka which we so recently celebrated, we have an acute sense of how it feels to have our holy space desecrated…but even more so, we know how it feels to celebrate its reconsecration with light.
Certainly too, the images of invasion and terror from Oct. 7 feel like a horrible violation. How can we restore a sense of integrity and holiness to our land? To our people?
Also in this week’s Torah portion, we learn how the midwives Shifra and Puah help bring ultimate justice and the overthrow of Pharaoh’s evil regime by ensuring Moses and the other Israelite children are born into the world. We, like Shifra and Puah, recognize and know how to defend the true values upon which God’s world stands: life and truth, justice and kindness, compassion and peace. We know that the values of both Israel and the U.S.A. are aligned with these. Though the pendulum of how we manifest these values may wobble a little and swing slightly off-center, ultimately, we have to believe that we will hold that line. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.
And perhaps most poignantly, at the start of the portion we learn that rather suddenly there arose a Pharaoh that “knew not Joseph.” Very quickly our ancestors were maligned and labelled a threat, and our situation in ancient Egypt declined sharply until we found ourselves enslaved under a corrupt regime. Each year we read this, and each year the warning comes to keep us on our guard. This warning feels especially relevant this year as we see antisemitism spiking around the globe. This warning that generation after generation through Jewish history has felt to be all too prescient a reminder:
Past glories and service cannot guarantee future freedom. Freedom is precious, fragile, and can never be taken for granted. Beware would-be dictators and beware terrorist regimes who glorify violence and death; Beware those who think truth can be manufactured and manipulated for their own ends, and beware those whose hearts are callous and self-serving; Beware those who can’t perceive the shared destiny and condition of our universal humanity, and beware those who lack respect for common decency and humanity.
I hope that the lesson we take with us into this Shabbat from the Torah portion is the lesson to defy hopelessness and to embrace hope. Shifra and Puah know that where there is hope, life has a chance. Without thinking, Moses fights back against the brutality he sees when a slave master beats a Hebrew. Somewhere deep inside we all know what is right and what must prevail, and that we can do something to help – this is the fountain of “hope springs eternal” which will never run dry. The Israelites cry out to God in their misery and – eventually – their cry is heard. This is prayer, this is the cry of hope that can never be extinguished. Indeed, the entire book of Exodus which we begin reading this week and on through to the end of the Torah is the story of hope, the story of the pursuit of redemption and a Promised Land in the land of Israel, the story of faith in freedom, the story of our ability and obligation to fix this world.
Remember what our name, the people of Israel, means: To struggle with God and with fellow humans…and to prevail.
As Shabbat begins, let’s focus on the Hatikva, “the Hope” which is our Israeli national anthem and the hope that we must have, in abundance, for the health and well-being of our democratic nation:
“May America remain loyal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and apply them to ever widening areas of life.
May our country be free from oppression, persecution, and unjust discrimination; may we overcome religious, racial, and class conflicts;
and may we be restored as a haven of refuge for the victims of injustice and deprivation.
May we learn the art of living together, and come to understand how to appreciate differences, to reconcile clashing interests, and to help one another achieve a harmonious and abundant life.
May we acquire the wisdom to choose honest and capable leaders who will govern us by democratic and ethical principles.
And may the enterprise of our American people be blessed that we
may utilize the resources of our land for the good of all the world.”
[1945 Reconstructionist Prayer Book (adapted)]
Rabbi Michael Schwartz