In last week’s parashat hashavua we witnessed a rapid transition in which the people of Israel went from a good life in Exile to a persecuted, miserable slavery. At the end of the parashah Moshe, after his first attempt to organize the people of Israel, is discouraged.
וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל י-ה, וַיֹּאמַר: אד-נָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.
Moshe went back to HaShem and said: ‘HaShem, why are you making this situation worse? why would You send me, if this is the outcome?
וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.
Ever since I spoke to Pharaoh in Your name, he has dealt harshly with this people, and You! You have not saved Your people.’ (Ex. 5.22-23)
After the marching and rallying of last week came the flurry of destructive executive orders. Why is it getting even worse? we might cry out as Moshe did.
Generations of commentary have sought to understand our own efforts for justice by studying this passage from our Torah. At the beginning of our parashah for this week, G*d replies:
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי י-ה.
G*d spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘I am HaShem;
ג וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי י-ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as a mighty G*d, but by My name YHWH I did not reveal to them. (Ex. 6.2-3)
The great Torah interpreter Rashi noticed the order of Names of G*d: First Elohim, a generic word for G*d also used to refer to other gods, is a word associated in Jewish tradition with G*d’s Judgment, where the Four Letter Name which we refer to by using the word HaShem (“the Name”) is associated with G*d’s attribute of mercy. A later commentator, the Piacezsner Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto (who wrote during the Holocaust), carries this insight forward to create a teaching that goes like this:
Harsh judgment is not always the way to bring people together; to get people to listen to you, and maybe even hear you, takes gentleness, kindness, and mercy.
We must open multiple fronts, my friends and companions in Resistance. Especially in #JewishResistance, we will be most effective and most true to ourselves and our tradition when we follow Isaiah in “crying out with full voice, making our voices a shofar” (58.1) and sometimes we must quietly speak our truth and listen openly to that of others. This tradition in Judaism is called makhloket l’shem shamayim; it challenges us to act not only with justice, but also with mercy, as a moment may demand.
We are taught that we are made in the Image of G*d and we are to be as G*d. Here that means to follow G*d’s example and reveal not only the Judgement side of ourselves, but also the side that shows Mercy, Compassion, and Love. It is as the signs of the marchers say: it is not hate against hate that wins; Love conquers Hate.
It took the Israelites a long time to leave Egypt. For us as well, the road ahead is long. We won’t be marching every part of it – sometimes we’ll be resting, coming together for reinforcement, meditating on what is happening both without and within, and finding our balance with each other’s help.
HaAzinu means “listen!” – “pay attention!” Now, in these few days between Yom Kippur and the start of our Sukkot holy day, now, when we are rushed to prepare not only for that Festival but for all that our New Year brings.
“Listen!” The words of our parashah, Moshe’s final song, ring out over the ages to us. On this Shabbat, following so closely on the heels of Yom Kippur, we are poised to respond with our best selves. Sometimes we have to listen carefully to a still small voice inside of us. Other times, the voice of G*d rings out loudly. It rings right now, right here in downtown Portland.
On Yom Kippur while we were immersed in prayer, while we were considering what it might mean to engage in social justice from a more deeply felt and articulated Jewish grounding to support us, a disaster for our local democracy was unfolding downtown at Portland Oregon City Hall. You can see coverage here:
A number of our fellow citizens had gathered at City Hall to voice their concerns with the new contract created by Mayor Hales and the Portland Police. Rather than being heard, they were forcibly ejected from the building with force by armed security. For no clear reason, our fellow citizens were pepper sprayed. The Image of G*d was beaten. It was arrested.
City Hall was built by the taxes paid by citizens. It is our building. It is our right to go there and testify without fear of being forcibly, physically silenced. And it is our right and our obligation – indeed, a mitzvah – to raise our voices now and demand that our elected leaders listen, and respond, and stand accountable for that inexcusable violence.
(I attach the open letter written by a leader of Don’t Shoot Portland. Please read it, that you might listen to him.)
What are we commanded to do in response to a divine call such as in this moment? First, learn about it. Then, write a letter or an email to City Hall. Post on your blog or on Facebook. Join me for our erev Shabbat kirtan this evening to consider, learn, and discuss. And then consider joining me at the planned protest gathering:
Friday Night Lights: Protest Against Brutality of 10/12 at Watershed PDX, 5040 SE Milwaukie Ave 3:00 Friday till 8:00pm Saturday
In our parashah we read Moshe’s hope that “My teaching will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.” (Devarim 32.2) May the approaching storms speak to us not only of the weather on this erev Shabbat. When inappropriate violence is used against our fellow citizens, it is not enough to secure our own house. The storm that grows in strength in our country will one day reach us all if we do not stand up against it.
I am deeply disappointed in the actions taken by our elected representatives at City Hall. Regardless of the details, crucial as they are, of whether the contract should have been ratified by City Council vote, violence against those who raise their voices peacefully in protest is wrong.
I pray that we each find a way to respond, as concerned and responsible citizens, that increases peace for all.
An Open Letter to Mayor Charlie Hales
My name is Gregory Robert McKelvey. I am a 23-year-old law student, campaign manager and activist. I am also a born and raised Portlander. During the past few years I have been organizing with groups such as Don’t Shoot Portland, which fights for justice in this city. During the past month or so, I have met with you and your staff many times to see if we could work together in achieving a better Portland. It has become clear that we cannot. Yesterday, I personally witnessed your police force close the community out of a public City Hall meeting, beat women and children, and pepper spray and arrest peaceful protesters all while yelling. Officers continued to yell, “under order of the mayor.” What I witnessed yesterday was something I never thought I would see in my hometown. I saw in the media that you said something like, “Some people are just looking for any reason to protest.” This is an incredibly disgusting statement, one that I feel compelled to personally address.
Over the past few years, Don’t Shoot Portland has conducted many peaceful protests throughout the city. Never once have we rioted nor looted. Just this year we organized panels, forums and art shows. We are not strictly a protest group. However, there are many instances in which a peaceful protest is warranted. Our First Amendment right is not something we are supposed to simply point to as a trophy of our past accomplishments, but rather a tool we must use to be heard. Howard Zinn once wrote, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” There is nothing more patriotic than exercising our First Amendment right.
However, it is not fun to protest. I do not enjoy getting daily death threats. We do not enjoy sleeping in tents outside of City Hall in the rain. We do not enjoy being pepper-sprayed. We do not enjoy being hurt by your police department. We are not looking for any reason to protest, we are trying to fix the reasons why we must protest. Police brutality, abuse of power, racial disparity in policing and corrupt politicians.
The Los Angeles Times wrote the other day:, “A 2012 investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found Portland Police were using excessive force against people with mental illness and were too quick to use Tasers.
Portland Police have also long been accused of disproportionately targeting black residents. African American residents make up 6.3% of the population but account for 12.8% of police stops, according to police data released last year.”
We have a problem in our city. Minorities are contacted at a far greater rate than whites; minorities are jailed at a far greater rate than whites; minorities are overwhelmingly overrepresented in our jail system. “As mayor, you can only submit two possible explanations for this reality: Either there is something inherently worse about brown or black people, or police actions have created an unjust racial disparity.” I like to think you do not think black and brown people are worse than others, and therefore agree that there is a problem with policing. This is why we protest. — because you recognize and acknowledge the problem yet refuse to do anything about it. Black people do not have the privilege. We must do something about it because we are being affected. None of us want to turn into the next hashtag.
Yesterday, I showed up to testify. Many others showed up just do that same thing. We wanted to be in Council chambers, but within just a few minutes you moved the meeting and locked out the public. You then had armed cops force everybody into one part of City Hall. That is an occupation. We were not allowed to attend the meeting. We were not allowed to testify and we were not given a voice. The only thing we were allowed to do was be beaten. I handed out waters and snacks to your officers. I felt bad for them. It must feel wrong to be ordered to beat children out of City Hall. I also care about them. I care about you. I care about our entire city. I just want justice.
It became clear that in an effort to thwart democracy, you were closing off City Hall to the community. I grabbed my bullhorn and directed everyone to leave. Next, you directed your police force to violently move in on everybody in the lobby. There was absolutely no violence before this. We were leaving as fast as we could. This did not make a difference to you. The citizens you abused were mostly women, children and the elderly. There were many disabled people as well. All waiting to testify at City Council. You should not view your constituents as the enemy, but rather as partners. We were there to testify, not occupy. It was you that ordered an armed occupation of City Hall while your citizens wanted to have their voices heard in a public meeting. This is intimidation at its finest and it is vile.
The area on the second floor of City Hall is very large but the doorway is not. As your forces continued to push into the crowd, many people were thrown to the ground. Others were trampled. Because of this nobody else could get through the doorway since it was blocked by injured community members. Yet, your police officers behind the line were still pushing people forward. People were attempting to slow the push so that those who had fallen could get up without being severely hurt. You did not care. This led to many more injuries. As people fell, your officers would jump on top of them and begin punching them in the face. After you had removed most of the community from their own building, your brutal officers began shutting the door. However, there were still people crying in agony on the ground inside. We needed to get them out before your officers could hurt them even more. While attempting to hold the door open — so that these injured people could get outside, your forces pepper-sprayed a 72-year-old women and many others.
I was one of the last community members to leave, as I was near the back of the line. Thus, I was able to see the entire ordeal unfold. As I got outside, with the mist of pepper spray still in the air, I was in shock of what you had directed your forces to do to us. Over the past month you have continuously attempted to silence us. However, I never expected you to deploy these tactics on hundreds of people just because they wanted to testify to their City Council.
Since you seem to believe we protest for no reason, let me inform you what the reason actually is. On September 23 we gathered in North Portland for a peaceful rally and march in solidarity with cities that were mourning the killings of unarmed African-Americans. Those cities and families asked us to do so. Soon after we gathered, we were met with dozens of officers with “gang enforcement” across their uniforms. We are not a gang. We are your constituents. Imagine the feeling of the young African-American children who came to rally for justice when their mayor sent gang enforcement to assault them. How do you think that feels? Apparently you think it feels like, “looking for any reason to protest”.
During this peaceful march, your forces pepper-sprayed, beat and shot at us. Since the police force is your responsibility, we came to City Hall to ask why you had directed your officers to assault us. After hours of simply asking to hear from you, you met with myself and two other leaders. In that meeting you agreed to speak to the crowd, continue regular meetings with our group about racism and police accountability, and to apologize for what your forces had done to us. You followed through on all of those requests, and I respect you for doing so. However, you soon proved that they were empty promises. The first of these continued meetings was supposed to be the following Wednesday at City Hall.
Once we arrived at City Hall for the community dialogue you had promised us, we were met with signs that said the meeting had been moved to a church in North Portland — and that City Hall was on lockdown. Many people could not make it to North Portland on such short notice. Others did not feel safe going to a church that is run by an accused sexual assaulter. Others simply did not feel comfortable going to a church. Black people are bigger than black churches. You then repeatedly lied claiming that we had signed off on the location change. You and your staff all know this is not true. This was a clear attempt to avoid your promise.
We stayed at City Hall, demanding that you do what you said you would. After many hours of waiting outside, your staff pulled me aside so we could meet with you. I told you that you needed to do what you promised, even if four hours late. Thus, you went outside and held a forum with the community where you answered many difficult questions, mostly about the new police union contract. You pretended to listen (your usual tactic) however it was clear the only way we could actually be heard would be at city council.
The following Wednesday, you allowed testimony on a flawed and corrupt contract with the PPA. Every single member of the community testified against the contract. You did not care because you do not have the community’s interest in mind. After just a few hours of testimony you amended the contract. This means that our voices can make good changes to the contract and also that the contract was not yet good enough to be ratified. However, this was not nearly enough.
Soon after that meeting, I met with you again. You attempted to lecture myself and two others on the reasons we must accept a bad contract. Your entire argument was based on the false premise that we need more police officers. You claim we are in a crisis. However, crime is down across the board. There is no crisis. Your primary concern with this contract is to retain and recruit officers. But what does it mean to retain and recruit officers who do not want to be held accountable and enjoy assaulting us as they have throughout the last month? Our city had an opportunity to set an example for real police reform and recruit officers of high character. I sincerely fear for what our city will become. It’s hard to imagine this being any worse.
The contract is bad. I agree with JoAnn Hardesty of the NAACP when she wrote, “[The contract] reflects the narrow focus on money rather than vision and does not reflect the will or voice of the community. There are many things wrong with this contract.” I also agree with the City Auditor who wrote, “We are concerned that the veil of secrecy that has enveloped the proposed contract and its creation stands to do long-term harm to the City’s efforts to build a stronger police accountability system.”
At the following City Council meeting, you jailed your political opponents for speaking out against you and blocked off the public from the meeting itself. This is anti-democratic, unconstitutional, illegal and un-American. Once again, I was not allowed to testify. Yesterday, a week after your latest abuse of power, you decided you would get your contract passed by any means necessary. You closed off the public from City Council, sent armed police officers to protect their wage increase, beat women and children, and arrested innocent protestors. None of us were allowed to testify, none of us were even allowed to be in there. We simply listened in horror in the halls of City Hall as your officers laughed at us. This is why we protest. We are not looking for any reason to protest, you just keep giving us reasons why we need to protest. Please watch the footage of the incident and tell me it looks fun to be there. Tell me that it looks enjoyable. Locking up and shutting out your political opponents is not how democracy works. Beating women, children, the disabled and the elderly is not how policing should work. For these reasons, along with the human rights abuses of your homeless sweeps including the Springwater Corridor, and your reluctance to act on corruption, the housing crisis, addressing homelessness or police accountability; I am calling on you to resign. I understand that you are on your way out but we have no time to spare. Lives are on the line. We will protest against you until you resign. This begins October 14.
At the beginning of our parashat hashavua it is written: Vayelekh Moshe; vay’dabeyr et kol had’varim ha’eyleh el kol Yisrael, “Moshe went; he spoke all these things to all Israel” (Devarim 31.1)
Although this form of speech may seem familiar to some of us (i.e. “he went and spoke”, or “he’s gone and done it now”) a strict grammarian, or a Torah commentator such as the ancient Sages of Israel, sees here a question. Based on the Rabbinical rules for interpreting Torah, which take as a given that there are no superfluous words in the sacred text, we can ask the simple question: where did Moshe go? The Torah does not specify where he went. It is an even more interesting point when we note that this is Moshe’s last day on earth.
Where was he going, on this last day of his?
Commentaries abound to fill in the ambiguity, and give us several possibilities for interpretation:
1. Even at the end of his long and distinguished career, Moshe was still a humble person. Rather than call all Israel together to hear him, he chose to go to each family tent. He chose to spend his last day of life with his people, meeting intimately with those with whom he had shared so many years of struggle and hope.
2. More disturbingly, it is suggested that the people of Israel were not willing to gather to listen to him. At the end of his life, they dismissed him and his words as no longer meaningful or relevant.
3. The mystics suggest a third possibility from his words: “I can no longer come and go.” They remind us that Moshe had been accustomed to going “up” to commune with G*d, and then coming back “down” to be with the rest of the Israelites. Now, nearing his death, he had risen toward G*d and was unable to meet us on our level.
From these insights we see that the question is not where he went, but how. Did he go in humility as a great leader? did he go as a scorned old man that no one wanted to listen to any more? Did he go somewhere that no one could follow?
On this Shabbat Shuvah, our Shabbat of Returning between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we consider not where we are going but how we are going. Each day of our lives we draw nearer to the last day. How are you going?
On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you feel supported in your search for your best way to go forward, toward the rest of your life, and toward your last day. That is why we create spiritual community: to talk about this, to encourage and support each other, and to be there, on this Shabbat and every day.
The center is having a hard time holding. Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi [read: teacher] Moshe” has already withstood the upheaval of the Golden Calf incident, the Korakh rebellion, and the catastrophe of the scout’s report only last week, the aftermath of which saw the generation of the wilderness doomed to die before reaching the Promised Land.
This week, in the midst of a continuing stream of legislation coming from On High, he suffers the most personal, and perhaps, most significant blow. Not to his leadership, but to his heart: his big sister, Miriam, dies. She who watched over him when he floated in the bulrushes, she who adroitly managed the princess who found him so well that his own mother was hired to be his wet nurse; she who led the people in song and dance, feeding their souls as Moshe challenged their physical and mental readiness to leave slavery, over and over again.
The Israelite people, insensitive as we all are to another’s grief, start up again with the complaining. This time it’s about the water: the water is undrinkable. Once again, Moshe brings the people’s complaint before G*d; once again, G*d provides a remedy. And once again, Moshe is to duly carry it out.
But this time he snaps. Instead of doing what G*d has commanded, he – Moshe – the one who has stood between the people and G*d’s anger countless times, he, this time, breaks out in anger against his people. Commanded to speak to a rock in order to bring forth its water, he instead strikes it with his staff. Water flows, regardless – but nothing is ever again going to be the same.
Not for Moshe, who is doomed in his turn by G*d’s decree to die before reaching the Promised Land because he struck the rock.
Not for the people, caught in one more violent upheaval which they caused by their lack of ability, or perhaps it’s willingness, to learn.
And not for us, who read this parashat hashavua and will, once again, not be able, really, to change.
All this comes about because of anger. Anger causes Moshe to lose it; anger born of fear, of frustration and of confusion, closes the people’s ears; and we – we are no different than our ancestors. Still prey to overwhelming emotions, still to ready to be angry.
The Sages teach that of all the emotions, anger is the most dangerous. This parashah gives us the paradigmatic example of its destructiveness. They taught: “Whoever tears garments in anger, breaks vessels in anger, and scatters money in anger, regard that person as an idolator” (BT Shabbat 105b), and “anger in a home is like a worm in a fruit.” (BT Sotah 3b)
But is it not true that righteous anger is a virtue? Here Moshe, even in his fault, can teach us. From him we learn this week that anger which causes harm is not righteous. It is never ad hominem, focusing on the person rather than the problem; it never descends into self-righteousness; it lives alongside the mitzvot, rather than leading into transgression. It’s hard to find, in short.
This week has been no less shocking than last, and we must find a way to keep our center, and that of our community, strong, as a bulwark against the madness. We do so, ironically, by recognizing that our own small acts, here where we are, share the same world as Nice and Ankara, as Baton Rouge and Orlando and Minnesota, and wherever the next terror will arise. It’s all the same darkness, and we must continue to defy it by taking care of each other, by practicing kindness, and refusing to air our own angers – how petty they might seem in comparison! Anger is a natural response to stress, but it is one we must work to overcome, if we would do what little we can to work toward the redemption of this terrifying world.
We take care of each other by showing up for each other, not least by coming to shul or attending a minyan, but also by being present whenever we are with each other – even by email, even on the phone, and especially in person. Don’t be angry – be determined. Don’t be angry – take that energy and blast the love you have within you instead. Love will only conquer hate if it’s just as loud.
Our parashat hashavua is Yitro. This parashah, in which we find described the revelation of the Jewish path symbolized by the Ten Words, is not named “Great Moments At Sinai” but Yitro [usually vocalized as Jethro in English], which is the name of Moshe’s father in law. Yitro is a Midianite priest – and so our parashah of the great moment of the Israelites standing at Sinai and entering into the Covenant is named for not only a non-Jew but (how to put this) leader of a non-Jewish religion.
About the fact that Moshe “intermarried”, this was par for the course at the time; Israelite men found life partners from everywhere. Jewish identity at the time passed through the male line, father to the son.
About Yitro, there is much midrash which recognizes that in the parashah he intervenes to give Moshe excellent leadership advice early on. The commentaries list his virtues, and those of Moshe as well (who was able to take advice from his father in law). The rabbinic focus on Yitro’s obvious leadership qualities must have been foremost in their minds when they settled upon the haftarah for today. Although it does describe a revelatory moment every bit as dramatic as that of Sinai for the prophet Isaiah, the interesting insight has to do not with the overwhelming presence of the Jewish vision of G-d, but of the uniquely Jewish sensitivities required of a Jewish leader.
In that spirit I offer you this weekly source of commentary on haftarah in hopes that you will find as much interest and insight in it as I do:
This week’s haftarah, while found in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, is seen by most as the Isaiah’s inaugural prophecy. In it, Isaiah experiences the famous vision of the divine throne room where the fiery angels praise God with the famous words “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory” (6:3). What confounds this majestic picture is Isaiah’s response where he seemingly expresses his unworthiness to experience this vision: “Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” (6:5) Isaiah’s words were followed up by what seems to be either a punishment or a purification ceremony: ‘Then flew unto me one of the fiery angels, with a glowing stone in his hand, which he had taken with his tongs from the altar and he touched my mouth with it, and said: lo, this has touched your lips and your sin is taken away.” (6:6-7)
Isaiah’s words do not offer us a clear picture of what he saw as his own failings. This gave interpreters an opportunity to express their visions of his failing. One such expression can be found in this midrash: Since he saw the ministering angels praising the Holy One Blessed Be He and did not join them in praising Him, he became troubled, likening himself to a man of unclean lips, for if I would have joined my praise to theirs, I would have lived forever like them. How could I possibly have remained silent? While he stood dumbfounded over the matter, he uttered some unnecessary words: ‘I live among an unclean people’. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘Regarding the words ‘For I am a man of unclean lips’, I can forgive you and allow you to bear responsibility for yourself, but regarding My children how could you say ‘I live among an unclean people’? Immediately, he bore the consequences of his words, as it is written: ‘The one of the fiery angels flew over to me with a live coal’. (6:6).” (Pesikta Rabati 33)
This midrash sees the prophet as an advocate for his people. A prophet or leader who would veer from this mission was to be considered sinful and worthy of punishment. This midrash sees Isaiah as falling short of this role and as requiring intervention. Only after this initiation was Isaiah worthy to serve his people.
This colorful interpretation of Isaiah’s introduction to his role as a prophet is intended as a powerful message to all those who take on the mantle of leadership.
About This Commentary This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.