Last Shabbat, I delivered a sermon about the five women characters who are featured in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus: the two midwives (Shifra and Pu’ah), Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Pharaoh’s daughter, and Miriam. I made the argument that all of them, at great personal risk, moved the story forward by conspiring to save the baby Moses, thus allowing for the eventual redemption that the 80-year-old Moses would bring. I noted, too, that the midwives (assuming that they were of Egyptian nationality – the Torah is opaque on this matter) and Pharaoh’s daughter were particularly courageous; it’s not hard to see how Hebrew women (particularly the mother and sister of the would-be victim) would oppose the evil edicts of Pharaoh, but for those who should be his loyal subjects (his daughter!), a much greater moral leap is required. They explicitly side with God. Here is part of what I wrote:
Our parasha sets up a crucial dynamic here that will dominate the rest of the Torah; the forces of darkness, death, and destruction will be utterly rejected by the God of light, life, and creation. The entire enterprise of the next book of the Torah, Leviticus, is to set up a society that is the diametric opposite of Egypt, a land of carnage that is to be left behind, never to be revisited. Egypt is the land of a petty despot, a ruler free of any moral decency, a self-declared God who arrogantly and preposterously declares, in the words of Ezekiel, “My Nile is my own: I made it for myself [and I alone can fix it!]” (29:3).
The courage of our five heroines, Shifra, Pu’ah, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Miriam, and the conceit of Exodus 1:1 – 2:10 sends the message that there is such a thing as a moral absolute – that not every argument has two sides – that there is right and wrong in the world, and sometimes it is not open to interpretation. It makes the bold, even historic statement, that integrity, conviction, and a sense of morality stem from a higher place. For Jews, that is God, the Torah, and Mitzvot, the trifecta that spells out how humans are to behave toward the divine and toward one another. When we fall down in our understanding, when we abandon the values that draw from the well of Torah, we risk more than the wages of personal sin; we risk the disintegration of the godly society that we are charged with creating and sustaining.
I was attempting to make a (relatively) subtle comment on the events of the week that had passed. Perhaps I was too subtle. This week’s parasha, however, doubles down on the idea. We see Pharaoh literally turn away from an unequivocal truth – that the waters of the Nile have turned to blood: “Pharaoh turned away (va-yifen Par’oh) and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this” (7:23).
I confided to one of my teachers this past week that I was struggling with what the role of a congregational rabbi is in a moment of political crisis such as the one we are living through. In our highly polarized environment, it is easy to dismiss commentary that touches on the political as “partisan.” I remarked to others that the same words of Torah that I use to demonstrate what I consider to be core Jewish values may be used to construe the exact opposite message by, say, the rabbi of the Young Israel at the corner. Who am I to be the arbiter of right and wrong?
And yet, in my kishkes, I believe that there is a “ground floor” of morality, of right and wrong, of truth, and that we should be able to agree on it. The systematic and permanent separation of children from their parents, to give just one example, is evil. Period. That it was allowed to happen is an indelible and historic stain on this country. No matter what your objective is, the end does not justify the means. We must see eye to eye on that. Joe Biden won the election. We must agree to that demonstrable truth, else we risk societal disintegration.
Witnessing the disgraceful cowardice displayed by a staggering number of our elected leaders over the past ten days has been profoundly disheartening for many of us. The “turning away” from the truth, the self-serving rationalization and what-aboutism, is the very thing that our parasha warns against. It’s the first plague, not the fourth or the seventh, that Pharaoh turns away from – this is the act that sets the tone for all the calamity that follows.
The country will be a long time healing from the tragic events of last Wednesday. And I will continue to interpret events through the lens of my Torah, the “ground floor” of morality and truth.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine