This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Exodus and retells the grand story of the enslavement and redemption of the Jewish people. The Jews were vilified and enslaved because “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.” This Pharoah felt threatened by the large numbers of Israelites in his midst and decided to oppress and enslave them as a means of weakening and controlling them. There were many horrendous decrees that came along with this enslavement, but I’d like to focus on the beginning.
Moses and Aaron make their first request to Pharoah, and it is a relatively simple one. “Let my people go, that they may celebrate a festival for Me [G-d] in the wilderness.” They are not yet asking for complete freedom. Pharoah accuses Moses and Aaron of trying to distract the people from their work. He punishes them by telling the taskmasters and foremen that the slaves would no longer be provided with straw for making bricks, but must gather the straw themselves. Despite this extra load of work, they would be expected to make just as many bricks as before.
As one can understand, the people were not happy with this decree, but they went to attempt to fulfill it. Of course it was not possible for them to complete the same amount of finished work as before and so the foremen were beaten by the taskmasters. The foremen needed someone to blame, so they went to Pharoah. But they did not find fault with him, nor did they reason with him. Instead, they said, “No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.” The foremen blame the Egyptian taskmasters.
Pharoah responds by calling the Israelites lazy. “You are shirkers!” he says. He claims that the fact that they want to go to worship is proof of their idleness. So the foremen go and blame Moses and Aaron for making them appear “loathsome to Pharoah and his courtiers.” Moses, in turn goes to G-d and said, “Why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharoah to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” Moses blames G-d.
Remember, this is the very beginning of the story, and already we are impatient, full of blame, lacking in trust. Change is a slow process, redemption does not occur overnight.
This weekend, we will mark the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King had a dream. Some of his vision has come to fruition. So much of it has not. We are quick to blame when we think about all the reasons that our world is still so full of hatred. We are quick to blame everyone else, and sometimes those people are to blame, but the blame is not the point. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is afraid to speak out for justice and he says to G-d, “I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” G-d responds “Who has made a person’s mouth? Who makes the mute, or deaf, or the seeing or the blind? Is it not I, the Eternal One? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you shall say.”
We feel this G-d-inspiration in our desire to make the world equitable. But fear stops us. Blame stops us. History stops us. As we begin the book of Exodus, the Torah reminds us not to stop, not to blame, not to fear. The future lies before us – redemption, or enslavement. Our path depends on opening our mouths and speaking out for justice for all. We ARE impatient. It IS taking too long. But that cannot not stop or slow us from fighting the fight.
Cantor Sally Neff