Religious Life

Moral Audacity – A Sermon by Rabbi Davis – January 18, 2020

Moral Audacity
21 Tevet | Shemot | January 18, 2020
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Two Jews were walking through a neighborhood one evening when they noticed they were being followed by a pair of hoodlums. “Dovid,” said to Shmuel, “we better get out of here. There are two of them, and we’re alone!”

Sometimes it feels like we are all alone and they’re all out to get us. That is what it felt like these last few weeks. Week after week, we heard about another antisemitic incident- Jews being attacked, property vandalized. And so, we attended rallies. We cried. We chanted. We stood up. But still, we were scared.

It would be easy and understandable in this kind of atmosphere to hunker down, to circle the wagons, to turn inwards saying, “Jewish Lives Matter.” In name of pride and protection, we must put Jews first. We must focus on antisemitism. Everything else is secondary. It would be understandable if we said, “They are all out to get us. So, forget them. Let other people deal with issues not directly connected to the Jewish People. We must put all our time and energy into working on ourselves.”  Tempting as it is, that is not the Jewish way as we learn in this week’s parasha.

Our parasha begins with the world’s first recorded instance of anti-Semitism. Remember, until now, there was no Jewish people. There was Abraham’s family, his children and grandchildren. Now, the family has grown into a tribe so large that it constitutes a people.

When Pharaoh looks out, he doesn’t see people who fled famine seeking shelter. He doesn’t see the family of Joseph who saved Egypt from the famine. He doesn’t see Hebrew’s living quietly, minding their own business in their corner of Goshen. He sees foreigners and a cheap source of labor. He sees an “other” and a threat. As Rav Soloveitchik explains, Pharaoh considered the Egyptians “his people” but spoke of the Jews as outsiders even though they had lived in Egypt for over a hundred years and had enriched the country beyond belief. And so slowly, imperceptibly at first, Pharaoh began to oppress the Israelites. The suffered mightily under the hands of the taskmasters. They felt alone. They were scared. They felt trapped.

What happens next is surprising and it teaches a critical lesson we must learn in the face of today’s anti-Semitism.

In chapter 2, we are introduced to Moshe with a series of three short vignettes that come quickly, one after another:

Scene 1: Moshe goes out of the royal palace and sees a Jew being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster. Seeing no one else step forward to help, Moshe jumps to action to save the Jewish slave.

Scene 2: The next day, Moshe goes out and finds two Jews fighting with each other. Again, he jumps into action and says, “break it up, break it up.”

Scene 3: On Moshe’s journey from Egypt to Midian, he comes to a watering hole and sees a bunch of men harassing a group of women who had come to draw water. And once again, Moshe came to the defense of the vulnerable, those in need. Listen to the specific language used in the Torah: “And Moshe rose up and delivered the women. Vayakom moshe v’yoshian” (12:17). That word, vayoshian is key. It is the same word that will later be used about God: “Vayosha adonai bayom hahu, God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians” (14:30).

With these three scenes and this one word, the Torah is telling why Moshe was chosen to lead the Israelites- because he himself stepped forward to deliver people from subjugation. Moshe was chosen because he embodied God’s concern for the oppressed, God’s care for the downtrodden, God’s love of liberty, passion for peace, devotion to freedom. God took note of Moshe and at the burning bush said, “You’re the one.”

In these stories about Moshe and later in the very words of the commandments, we are taught: “Do not stand idly by.” Notice those in need. Do not to remain silent. Do not ignore suffering or rationalize away why you can’t help.” But there is something else, a specific message that calls out to us today.

Think about the three vignettes. The first scene was non-Jew versus Jew. The second scene was Jew verses Jew. The third scene was non-Jew versus non-Jew. And in each case, without regard for the ethnicity of the victim, Moshe delivered the weak from the hand of the mighty.

Rabbi Shai Held draws out the lesson: “The person chosen by God must not limit his outrage to injustices perpetrated against his own people. He must be incensed by and must act against injustice committed against anyone. Solidarity with one’s own people is necessary, but not sufficient. Ethnic solidarity must be entwined with broader human solidarity.” (More than Managing: The Relentless Pursuit of Effective Jewish Leadership, p. 87).

Now we should pause a moment and give credit to whom credit is due. Where did Moshe learn this lesson? How did he come to empathize with the other who is not his kin? Consider his beginning. Pharaoh’s daughter saw a basket floating down the Nile. “She opened the basket, saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She had compassion for him and said, “This must be a Hebrew baby vatomer miyaldei haivreiim zeh (2:6).” Did you catch that? From her perspective, the baby was a Hebrew, a slave child, a nobody, one designated by her father as an enemy of the State. And yet, she had compassion on him. From his mother, Moshe learned to act with moral audacity.

I raise this topic davka this morning to remind us what it means to be a Jew. At a time when we would be justified to circle the wagons and say, “Jewish Lives Matter,” the Torah is telling us, all lives matter. “Ethnic solidarity must be entwined with broader human solidarity.”

To be sure, we must put family first. We must ensure our safety. But we must not limit ourselves to family. “To those who insist, we should take care of our own and let others take care of theirs, the Torah responds with Moses, the leader whose example teaches that we rise to defend even those who are foreign to us.” (Held, ibid.). Like Moses, our obligation is to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, regardless of their religion, nationality or citizenship.

In the words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman: “Our responsibility is to protect and ensure the survival of the Jewish people, but our mission is to create a people guided by a tradition which challenges us to live lives of meaning and value and which can be a light both to ourselves and others. We need to fight anti-Semitism wherever it appears but fighting anti-Semitism must not exhaust or define the purpose of Jewish life… The principle lesson of Auschwitz is “Never Again.” The principle lesson of Sinai is the challenge to become a holy people.”

It is a message that was echoed by Martin Luther King whose legacy we mark this weekend. King didn’t just fight for the civil rights of African Americans. He fought for the rights of all Americans. He fought against the Vietnam War and fought for the economic security of the poor. King organized the Poor People’s Campaign to alleviate poverty in America regardless of race saying, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

I’d like to conclude with the words of columnist Bari Weiss who spoke at the “No Hate, No Fear” rally in New York City:

I am not a Jew because people hate my religion, my people, and my civilization.

Not for a single moment does Jew-hatred, make me a Jew.

I am a Jew because my ancestors were slaves. And I am a Jew because the story of their Exodus from Egypt, their liberation from slavery, is a story that changed human consciousness forever.

I am a Jew because our God commands us to never oppress the stranger.

I am a Jew because the biblical words on the liberty bell — proclaim liberty throughout the land! — rang out from the righteous mouths of this country’s abolitionists as they fought for universal freedom in this New Jerusalem.

I am a Jew because it was Emma Lazarus who etched the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger onto the consciousness of America when she wrote the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I am a Jew because I refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice.

The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews. We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.