Shabbat Bo: Come to Pharaoh

So much happens so quickly in the parashat hashavua for this week: the parashah begins with the final confrontations between the ruler of Egypt and the messenger of G*d, and continues with the description of the first Pesakh Seder. Slowing ourselves down to carefully look at, and listen to, the words of the sacred text yields rich and provocative depths.
For example, it is interesting to note that the opening of the parashah does not say that G*d commanded Moshe to GO to Pharaoh, but rather to “come to Pharaoh.” (Ex. 10.1) The verb is confusing: surely, HaShem is sending Moshe to Pharaoh with a message, and the natural verb one uses with a messenger is “go.”
One interpretation: this is a hint at the truth that G*d is everywhere and it is impossible to “go” from G*d’s presence. “Come” to Pharaoh actually therefore means “Come [with Me] to Pharaoh.” G*d is promising that the Divine Presence will be with Moshe when he leaves the moment of communication and undertakes his journey to deliver it.
Another thought: one does not confront one’s enemy without unless one also confronts the enemy within. One cannot make progress “going” toward Pharaoh until one also recognizes and strives to confront the Pharaoh within oneself.
Bringing these two insights together may shed some light on the place where we stand on this Shabbat, one year after the beginning of the Trump Administration in the United States.
When one attempts to take a stand in Resistance for justice in these days, it may feel precarious and frightening. To stand up, we may feel, is to walk away from safety – and, as well, it certainly does seem that one walks away from clarity. But the Presence of that which sustains you down to the depths of your soul will still be there for you when you are acting out of that depth of ethical conviction. One need not be a prophet to carry an important ethical message; one need only be committed to the message one carries.
The challenge is sometimes being willing to be honest with ourselves in realizing that demonizing others – even the worst of others – invariably unbalances our ability to connect with our deepest ethical certainties. To “come” to Pharaoh is to undertake the “self-purification” that Dr Martin Luther King Jr calls a necessary prerequisite to resistance; it is to ask yourself why you feel as you do, what you are willing to do, and what it means for your and those for whom you bear responsibility.
Our ancestors compare Egypt to a “narrow place” that constricts one’s freedom to be and also one’s ability to think and feel, especially for others. The narrow place has no room for empathy or compassion.  One cannot “go” to Pharaoh until one has “come” to the Pharaoh inside, facing up to our own narrowness of heart and mind.
A final thought: during the plague of terrifying total darkness in Egypt, “the Israelites had light in their dwellings.” (Ex. 10.23) How is this possible? The light was that which each Jew carried within, the holy spark that, when found and carefully strengthened, lights the way before us, for us and each other.
What message do you carry? What Pharaoh must you face? What will help you strengthen your own soul’s light so that you can clearly see the way you must go?
You will not discover the answer alone, but only in the midst of the community. It was together that we found the way out of Egypt, and together that we made our way to Sinai. And together, each shining our special unique light, we will continue: to learn, to support each other, and to act for justice, for truth and for peace.

Asara b’Tevet: Countdown to January 20 2017

Yesterday the countdown began, although you may not have noticed. Yesterday was Asara b’Tevet, a minor fast day in Judaism which marks the day on which the Babylonian Empire laid siege to the ancient walls of Jerusalem. It was created as a fast day because that day was the beginning of the end for the ancient Kingdom of Israel; the Babylonians destroyed the city and exiled our ancestors in 586 BCE.

“Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah” (II Kings 25.1-2). According to the Prophet Ezekiel, we are commanded to mark the day forever after: “O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24.2).

Why remember an ancient harbinger of destruction? Recently our people has rationalized that we no longer need to remember this day – after all, Jerusalem is rebuilt.

But today the day glows with renewed relevance: the ancient history of yesterday, with its Jewish undertone of impending tragedy, offers itself to us in our own day. Yesterday marked the beginning of the onslaught of the Cabinet choices of the new administration – as good a place as any to stand as our own Asara b’Tevet. We do not know how this story will play out yet, because we will be a part of it, through our Resistance. But our Resistance as Jews is supported by a firm grounding in awareness of our history, and what it has taught us.

Our Countdown has 13 days, and this is Day 2. This is how Jews can proceed, and if you are in Portland Oregon I invite you to join me:

Day 4 Wednesday January 11 7pm –  Pub Talk: Judaism and Resistance at the Lucky Lab on Hawthorne. Learn with Rabbi Ariel Stone and Rabbi Tzvi Fischer of the Portland Kollel; get grounded in your people’s cultural wisdom. As Bend The Arc is saying: we’ve seen this before. Have a beer with us, meet some new companions in the Resistance.

Day 6 Friday January 13 6.30pm – Kley Kodesh; kirtan-style Erev Shabbat at Shir Tikvah Join JD Kleinke and explore the spiritual strength to resist found in ancient Jewish prayer in chant, meditation and song.

Day 8 Sunday January 15 3-5pm – Oregon Sanctuary Assembly, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Avenue. Join Shir Tikvah leadership in attending this gathering to learn strategies for fulfilling our tradition’s mitzvah “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Lev. 19.16). please rsvp.

Day 9 Monday January 16, Martin Luther King day 5-7pm – Unite by JewsPDX, hosted by Shir Tikvah. Join Jews from across Portland to learn from our people’s long tradition of political Resistance, listen to each other, and organize. Light fare and child care included, PLEASE do the mitzvah of registering your RSVP on this Eventbrite page to ensure an accurate headcount and check out the Facebook event, like and share. 

Day 13 Friday January 20, Yom Ta’anit – Jewish tradition demands that we take time to center ourselves in our strength, find our support in each other, and then go forward to do what must be done:

A Day of Fasting and Prayer 10.30am-3.30pm Shir Tikvah’s doors are open to you to join in prayer, to sit in meditation, to be inspired, to take a breath and renew your dedication to Resistance.

A Day of Rallying and Marches 4pm Inauguration Day Protest at Pioneer Courthouse Square (Shabbat begins at 4.43 and we will be there to invite Jews among those who rally to bless the light with us)