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L’fi Dati: A Time for Urgency

from Rabbi Weintraub’s sermon, Shabbat Va’era, January 28, 2017

I love the arguments that Moshe gives G-d as he tries to get a “draft deferment” from the Divine Decision to conscript Moshe to lead the Israelites’ liberation.

Moshe tries just about everything:

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus, 3:11)
“I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (4:10)
“The children of Israel will not listen to me.” (6:12)

These are good, sound arguments. Moreover, as our Parsha begins today, Moshe, although a fugitive, has found a comfortable, privileged new life in Midian, where he has married “well” into a highly respected priestly family.

He has all the reason to stay. So why does he finally decide to go along with G-d and return to the oppressive cauldron of Egypt?

We may find answers in a few verses in Chapter 2 which describe Moshe’s adult life before he encounters G-d at the burning bush. There, we see, Moses goes out among his enslaved brothers, vayar b’sivlo’tam, understood generally as “and feels for their suffering” (2:11). That behavior and attitude, we imagine, is similar to that of the other Israelites, who together toil and suffer daily lashes and humiliation.

But in one aspect Moshe is different. In the face of Egyptian cruelty, he has a sense of outrage. One imagines that in the vast state run enterprises in which the Hebrew slaves labored nothing was more common than to see Hebrews whipped and disgraced. It was as normal as straw and sand. But it tears at Moshe. So he looks ko vacho, this way and that, sees that there is no man and kills the Egyptian slave master (2:12).

Moshe cannot get accustomed to bigotry, to crime, to evil. He does not regard these things as inevitable. He doesn’t conclude sorrowfully that this is just the way things are, the latest outburst of man’s ineradicable aggression. He believes that no matter how popular or legal cruelty is, we can still choose. We can say no to indifference and death and insist on freedom and possibility. Moshe partners with G-d because he cannot turn aside. He cannot get used to scandal and hatred.

This is the danger of the time that we are living in now. Every day is another outrage, another lie, another violation, and the danger is that many are getting used to it.

Millions are unemployed, desperate, substance addicted, and we blame the strangers among us.

We want to live in peace, but are now seen with distrust all over the world.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day (this past Friday), our President ordered the doors of our country shut to refugees, suspending the entire resettlement program for 120 days, and banning indefinitely the arrival of people from the slaughter house of Syria. His position rests on lies or willful ignorance about our refugee policy, which already vets rigorously, and on utter indifference to human suffering. He disregards and some say violates refugee conventions which were adopted intentionally after World War II because of the six million who were murdered when the world turned its back.

It is a time to stop imagining that this President and his advisors, if they are given enough time, or crash courses in Presidential behavior, or real life negotiations with Congress, or psychological intervention by their children, will start to advocate or behave differently than they have for the past 18 months.

In 1956, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote “the road to disaster is paved with pleasant illusions, and the way to deal with evil is not to ignore it”.

As our prophets and Rabbis have long understood, times of upheaval are also times of Teshuva, of repentance.

Evil is not only a threat. It is also a challenge. It is within the context of fighting evil that we, like Moshe, start to see how unquenchably precious life is. The struggle against evil can call us to prayer, to introspection, to action and to good works.

And it can bring us to each other.

As Jews, as we read these Torah potions week to week , we know that despite all the perfidy in the world, we have as constant companions the universalism of Avraham, the compassion of Rachel, the righteousness of Moses, the vision of Miryam. And we have the undying example of our parents and grandparents and so many others whose lives showed us that support for refugees is not charity, not even just high minded idealism, but a prudent contribution to stability, prosperity and understanding in a tense world.

Sur mei’ra v’asei tov, turn from evil and do good, is the instruction of Psalm 34, which we read every Shabbat morning. Judaism is aware of the ubiquity of evil in the world, but stresses instead the ever present possibility of doing good. We are given mitzvot and these, one by one, day by day, will conquer evil. Redemption is not an event that happens in one full blast at the end of days, but a process that is going on all the time, in individuals, in families, and in societies.

I am very pleased that so many in our Congregation are working to make sure that our country retains the hard earned moral authority which so many have fought and died for.

Every deed counts. In supporting refugees now –whether by teaching English, offering pro bono legal services, putting our bodies on the line at airports, calling our Congress people, and more–we do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with G-d.

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