Saturday, January 21, 2012

D'var Torah

This is the D'var [words of] Torah I gave last week:

The book of Exodus. Martin Luther King Jr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. This list sounds pretty random, and when hearing it one might wonder what do they have in common besides the fact that this week we read the first parsha in the book of Exodus, Monday is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US, and it is also Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yartzite. To me, it is actually quite fortuitous that these things  came together at the same time this year--as one of my friends put it, drashing on these three things together is like winning the Rabbinic lottery.  What makes these things the “rabbinic lottery?” Why do these things tie together so well? To me, it is how clearly all three display what it means to have courage. This sounds a bit broad, what is courage and how do these three instances display courage to us? For the purpose of today, I am not going to use the dictionary definition of courage, rather the one I am going to use comes from the book To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee defines courage as:
 When you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
This week we have many examples of people who probably thought they were licked before they began.
Firstly, in this weeks parsha we read the line:
: :P`Eswøy_tRa oäådÎy_aáøl r¶RvSa Mˆyó∂rVxIm_lAo vä∂dDj_JKRl`Rm M∂q¶D¥yÅw

a new king arose who did not know of Joseph. This Pharoah  saw that the Israelites were multiplying and set task masters over the Israelite people. Still, even in slavery the Israelite people multiplied. In this story we read of two unlikely heroes: the midwives. Pharoah  speaks to the midwives Shiphrah and Puah saying:  
When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy kill him, if it is a girl, let her live.
The orders Pharoah gives these women are pretty explicit: step 1 deliver the baby, step 2: if it’s a boy—kill it. There is no grey here. Yet, despite these incredibly black and white orders from Pharoah
—the person who is the highest in government, the midwives choose to let the Hebrew male babies live, as we read:
N™RhyElSa r¶R;bî;d r¢RvSaA;k …w$cDo aâøl◊w My$IhølTa∞Dh_tRa ‹tOdV;lÅyVm`Ah Π Naô®ryI;tÅw
:MyáîdDl◊yAh_tRa Π Ny™R¥yAjV;tÅw Mˆyó∂rVxIm JKRl∞Rm
The midwives feared God and so they let the babies live. They also risked punishment from Pharaoh when he found out what THEY were doing. Think for a moment, how different the story of our exodus would have been had these midwives not had the courage to do what they felt was right. Had they not disobeyed Pharoah there would have been no baby Moses, would there been another who could have led us out of Egypt? The rest of the Torah would have been completely different had they not been so courageous! This is especially true given their position in society.  According to Hannah Pressman a commentator who is presuing her PhD in Hebrew Littature at The New York University
Consider, then, the special position of Shiphrah and Puah in these initial verses of Exodus. Significantly, the book of Exodus begins with an overt act of political defiance by two women who are themselves serving the enslaved Israelites. Yet these women, seemingly in a subservient position to a subservient people, enter into a high-stakes power play with the king of the ruling nation! This fact, in and of itself, sets the stage for the eventual and ultimate defiance of Pharaoh by the Israelites.
Shiphrah and Puah risked insulting Pharaoh at the least, and my guess at worst  death. Yet they risked it all, not knowing that through that risk, Moses would be born and he would lead the Israelites out of slavery.
These women, my not have thought that they were “licked” when they were doing what they were doing, but they most likely they knew it was risky.
Lets fast forward to the mid 1900’s and the Civil Rights Movement.  On Monday, America will be celebrating Martin Luther King Junior Day. Now, I could be wrong, but my guess is that Martin Luther King Junior did not know if the movement would be successful at all. Rather he saw an injustice, and saw a need to fix it, and just like Shiprah and Puah he did it on faith, he was once quoted as saying: “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.  My guess is, Martin Luther King Jr did not see the whole staircase. He could not imagine how far we would come, while still having so much further to go for equal rights for all. Rather, he had to have the faith to take the first steps, to start the ball rolling, he had to first have the dream for equality, and then have the faith and courage to follow it. Many may have thought he was licked before he began, but as Harper Lee pointed out to us, you don’t often win, but sometimes you do.
One man who believed in Martin Luther King Jr’s fight was, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, who was a noted Jewish philosopher who wrote well known books such as Man Is Not Alone, God In Search of Man,  and The Sabbath,  was also a fighter of civil rights. Heschel believed that we needed not textbooks, but what he called “text people”, people who through their actions and how they walked in the world lived the Torah.  Heschel saw the teachings of the prophets as a call for social action in the United states, and he worked for racial equality. Heschel had the courage to stand up and be a text-person fighting against what he believed was one of the biggest threats to mankind. He once said: Racism is man’s gravest threat to man-the maximum of hatred for the minimum of reason. Heschel’s support of Martin Luther King Jr went beyond simply agreeing with his message. Heschel once said “To be is to stand for”, and Heschel had the courage to be. He had the courage here to speak up against what he saw as a grave injustice in the world, as someone who was not experiancing the injustice himself but knew it needed to be fixed. In 1963 Heschel and Martain Luther King Jr. met and not only did they work together to fight injustice, but they formed a friendship. There is a picture of King and Heschel walking arm in arm in the front row of the marchers at Selma. They spoke out against the war in Vietnam. These men worked together, and through collaboration and the courage to speak up for what they believed was right were able to achieve great social change.
We may have come a long way from the Civil Rights Movement, but we still have much further to go. This past summer people pitched tents all over Israel demanding "Tzedek Hevrati"--they saw injustice--inflated prices that did not match up to the salaries . Now, for  the past few weeks in Israeli newspapers we have heard people speak out against injustice against women in the public sector. People are speaking up, saying that things like segragated bus lines go against the Jewish values of this country, and they are taking a stand. Now, I am not asking if you agreed with the politics of the protesters or  if you agree with how they are going about getting their voices heard. What I am suggesting is that you admire their courage. They may not win, and they may feel as though they were "licked" before they began, but they have found the courage to open their voices and demand to be heard. Pirke Avot 1:14 starts by saying if I am not for myself who will be for me. No one else can stand up for you, no one else can speak your mind, only you can work to right the things you think are wrong—the quote from Pirke Avot ends with if not now, when? We need to have the courage to speak up, we may think we are licked before we start, we may fail often, but sometimes we will succeed.

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