For my weekly message this week, I am sharing the remarks I delivered in synagogue last Shabbat. I think it serves as a good end-of-2021 message. I was trying to speak to the moment we all find ourselves in – trying to find glimmers of hope and uplift in a hard time.
With warm regards and best wishes for a better 2022,
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine
Parashat Shmot, Dec 2021
I rode the train in to Manhattan last week to visit a dear old friend who had come to town to produce and star in a remarkable dance performance. On my way back to Brooklyn, the subway stopped at Atlantic Avenue and the doors were held open for several minutes, as happens sometimes. I was seated facing the platform, and the door opened right next to one of those video monitors that they have in the subways now, flashing public service messages and the like. I sat for a while staring blankly at the screen, until my eyes finally focused on the following message: Let’s look out for each other. That’s all it said. And I thought to myself, yes, let’s look out for each other. A few seconds later, the next screen flashed another message: Let us know if something doesn’t seem right. My goodness, I thought – where would I even begin?
I had only just read about last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live, whose live audience and much of its cast had been told not to come in because of Covid concerns. The guest star, Paul Rudd, this week’s “sexiest man alive” was hosting, and was due to receive special recognition for joining the rarified pantheon of “5-timers” – people who have hosted the show at least 5 times, apparently a significant honor. But of course, playing to an empty house was not what he had expected, and it put a serious damper on the celebration. He was introduced by Tom Hanks and Tina Fey, themselves both 5-timers, and when they called him out to join them, he bounded out onto the stage to a smattering of applause from the few people in the room, waved, and said “I’m extremely… disappointed.”
Paul Rudd was certainly channeling the zeitgeist. We’re all extremely disappointed. It’s hard to believe that we’re back here again. In COVID limbo. People all across the country – all around the world – are cancelling or changing their holiday plans. Many of us are hunkering down again after a brief lull in the summer and fall when we thought things might be letting up a little. Loneliness and isolation abound. College students are suffering from mental health episodes in record numbers. As COVID cases surge and hospitals fill once again to beyond capacity, health care workers are despondent, leaving the profession in great numbers – the stress is just too much. The vaccinated are vexed and perplexed by the mass of anti-vaxxers, unsure how to channel their rage at what they perceive to be a catastrophic unforced error – the prolonging of this great mess because of misinformation and anti-science, apparently drummed up, in large measure, by political mischief makers, in an atmosphere where every single thing is exploited as a wedge issue, regardless of what damage it does. The threat of another semester of Zoom school hovers over January, religious services like ours are returning to all-virtual formats, and the COVID-19 virus threatens to simply keep mutating, throwing us a new curve-ball every few months. And even if we are able to gain a measure of control in our own country, and in other first-world nations, until the global community comes together to conquer COVID on a global scale, we are destined to continue on this same Sisyphean course.
Let us know if something doesn’t seem right, reads the sign in the subway. You gotta be kidding me… Nothing seems right right now. For those who are watching the news, our country is in crisis, arguably threatened in a way not seen since the Civil War. The frightening assault on the democratic process by would-be authoritarians and minoritarians endangers the very fabric of the republic, the dream of the founders. Civil discourse has utterly disintegrated, the political process is dysfunctional, political statesmanship is a fading memory. Around the globe, despotism is gaining traction, and the threat of war looms over Europe. These are hard times we are living through. If you’re feeling the weight of the hour, the constriction and the darkness, you are not alone, and you are not crazy.
The Egypt that we read about at the beginning of Exodus is a place of darkness, weight, and constriction too. The kabbalists famously draw a connection between the word Mitzrayim, Egypt, and the word tzar, or meitzar, meaning “narrow place” or “place of constriction” – it is a place where the soul cannot breathe. God awakens to the plight of the Israelites, saying to Moses,
I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt, their cry have I heard… indeed I have known their sufferings… (Fox, 3:7)
In our parasha, Egypt is characterized as a place of immorality, of negligence and neglect, of a total lack of regard for human life and human suffering:
…they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses (1:11). The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field. (1:13-14).
And then, or course, finally, after imposing back-breaking labor upon the Israelites, Pharaoh orders the killing of all the male children of the Hebrews – they are to be thrown into the Nile.
But Pharaoh’s campaign of terror and death is met with an opposing force. Remember the sign on the subway? Let’s look out for each other. That appears to be the antidote, at least on one level, to Egypt’s ruthlessness. In our parasha alone, multiple human actors resist the horrors of Egypt. The midwives, Shifra and Puah, defy Pharaoh’s order and refuse to kill the Hebrew babies. Pharaoh’s daughter defies her own father and rescues an Israelite infant. Miriam seeks the welfare of her brother, the baby Moses. Moses, himself, as a young man, looks out for the slave suffering at the hands of the Egyptian taskmaster, then seeks reconciliation between the two arguing Israelites the next day, and soon thereafter comes to the aid of the daughters of Reuel/Jethro, who are being harassed at the well. Reuel deals kindly with Moses, taking in the stranger, employing him, and ultimately giving him one of his daughters in marriage. Aaron, in a position to be jealous that his younger brother is chosen over him for leadership, rejoices at his brother’s position. Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, goes out of her way to save her husband in the “bridegroom of blood” incident. And of course, Moses, at last, accepts the role that God has chosen for him and sets in motion the chain of events that will ultimately lead to the Israelites’ liberation, to their redemption.
In all of these cases, individuals of all backgrounds – Israelite, Egyptian, Midianite – the privileged and the slave, the priest and the shepherd – make the effort to identify with the vulnerable and then act benevolently on their behalf. They act to make whole something that is broken. In some cases, they are deeds of defiance in the face of tyranny; in others, they are simple acts of kindness from one human to another. But in all cases, they stand in stark contrast to the malign forces that govern Egypt.
In the darkest hours, our parasha seems to be saying, when it appears as though society has lost its way, humanity, compassion, kindness, and empathy can vaccinate us against the growing threat.
The work is ours to do. God does not redeem without partnering with people. The story of redemption is suggested in what is, for me, one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, from Psalm 118: min hameitzar, karati YAH; anani vamerchav YAH – “from the narrow place (Egypt?), I called out to YAH – to God; YAH answered me in the wide-open place.” We call out from the narrow place, but God does not answer us from the wide-open place – God answers us IN the wide-open place. We have to find our way through the canyon to the prairie. God will answer us there, after we’ve done the very human work of freeing ourselves from what was constraining us.
Our parasha is filled with hope; not just because we know there’s a happy ending, but because it speaks to the potential that we have as actors in our own drama, to stand up for what is right and just and good in the face of malevolence and immorality. In these terribly hard times that we’re living through right now, rather than get swept away by the intransigence, the divisiveness, the ear-splitting noise of hatred and confrontation, let’s keep in mind what we might see on any given day sitting on a New York City subway car: The answer to Let us know if something doesn’t seem right is, quite simply, Let’s look out for each other.