Thursday, January 14, 2010

Parashat Vaera 5770: Partners with God - A divine Call and a personal responsibility

While I have not written a blog entry in months, I was moved to do so by a number of reminders of this Parsha's message which came to me as I went through a quite enjoyable final week of vacation. At first, I expected to have trouble responding to this week's narrative, which focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues, I hope you will also see the powerful connections I felt to the refrain proclaim by God, through Moses and Aaron, to Pharaoh - שלח את עמי ויעבדני, Send my people forth so that they may serve me (Exodus 7:16 et. al.). Beyond the plain meaning of this text, this call has meant so much to so many different people, Jews and non-Jews, throughout history, who have sought the God-given rights to freedom and dignity, especially the same freedom to serve God sought in the Parsha.

Less than twenty-four hours after returning from Israel and a stopover in Belgium, I ran out from minyan Monday morning and headed downtown on the subway to the New York Supreme Court to answer a summons for jury duty. Although it felt like a chore at times, especially as I spent most of my time (all of Monday and the first hour of Tuesday) just waiting for my name to be called, an experience I had Monday afternoon, coupled with the reminder in the juror orientation video that the jury system came to replace the use of trial by ordeal, made me think otherwise.
After being released early for the day on Monday, I spent some time sightseeing downtown, and took a few hours to explore the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which I hadn't been to since I was in sixth grade. The Museum tells the story of twentieth and twenty-first century world Jewry in three parts: Jewish Life a Century Ago, The War Againt the Jews, and Jewish Renewal. As I walked through the section depicting the Holocaust, especially the many points during which rights and dignity were taken away from Jews and others, an intense feeling of Thankfulness came over me. The fact that as an openly practicing Jew, I was called upon to fulfill this civic duty just like any other citizen (besides for the fact that one of the court clerks was wearing a kippah) is an answer to the call of שלח את עמי ויעבדני. The demand of Pharaoh was not just that the Hebrews should be released to be free from any obligation, but the freedom to accept responsibilities to God and their fellow people, to build a better society than the one from which they had come. Although I have generally been one to take civic duties like voting seriously, the intense reminder of what happens when rights are taken away from Jews and non-Jews in a society was more than enough for me to see jury duty as not just an obligation, but a right and privilege, a way to attempt to emulate God's command of צדק צדק תרדף, justice, justice shall you pursue.
I did not have to leave the museum to again be reminded of this Parsha's message of freedom from tyranny. A moving changing exhibit focused on a phenomenon with which I was previously unfamiliar, a small but significant group of Jewish refugee professors who were saved from Nazi Germany by being given offers to teach at Black colleges, who unlike certain other institutions, had no issue with hiring a Jew. Besides for transmitting knowledge and being thankful for their lives having being saved, these professors shared the belief that all people were created equal, and should have equal opportunities. One of them was quoted with putting forth an idea that was logical yet revolutionary for the time, that he saw no reason why Black students should not be challenged and could not be capable like any others. In the same vein, a student remarked that they were at first uncomfortable with one of the refugee professors calling on students whether they were prepared or not, and waiting for what seemed like eternities for them to produce an answer; the same student later remarked that when he went to law school, he was more prepared than any other student for what was a standard tool of pedagogy. Both the refugee professors and their students cried out שלח את עמי, let me be free, let my life be spared or let me have the same rights as my neighbors - but the saga also embodied the spirit of ויעבדני, and serve Me, as the professors did not take being spared for granted, and their eager students were willing to work hard, for both personal achievement and so they could fulfill the same rights, like jury duty, as their peers.

The next day, I was perusing the Jewish news on JTA (I'll admit it, on twitter), and came across yet another courageous figure who acted in the spirit of his ancestors, Moses and Aaron -- Rabbi Murray Saltzman, a civil rights leader who passed way just the other day. While the rabbi devoted much of his career to this noble cause, one incident touched especially:
At HUC [Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's seminary] , he and a fellow student -- an African-American professor studying for a doctorate in rabbinics -- went to a restaurant for a meal. The diner would not serve the professor, leading Saltzman to organize a lunch counter sit-in until his classmate was served.
Just as Moses and Aaron continued relentlessly to push Pharaoh to let the people go, Rabbi Murray Saltzman did not acquiesce to his colleague not being served like himself, but persevered until justice was achieved and both he and his colleague were served. In doing so, he anticipated what would become the most repeated mantra in the Torah - כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Unfortunately, we were also forced this week to look to our tradition for help in responding to the intense tragedy which ensued from the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week. This is not the right forum for theodicy (dealing with why evil happens); I would much rather devote the space to how we should respond to this tragedy after it occurred.
The idea of doing what is within our power to help those in need, and saying that we are our brothers' keepers came to mind when reading the commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of the Ger Hassidic dynasty on this week's Parsha. He began his remarks in 1871 by quoting a midrash about Reuben, Joseph's brother, who had attempted to save Joseph from being killed by the other brothers with the idea of throwing them into a pit. The midrash says that the verse regarding Reuven (Genesis 37:22) came to give testimony before God, and implicate Reuven for not fulfilling the words in the verse, למען הציל אותו מידם להשיבו אל אביו, that he had asked the brothers to throw Joseph into a pit 'in order to save him from their hands, to return him to their father." Reuven responded, "if I had known that those words would be recorded I would have worked harder to fulfill them." The Sefat Emet comments mystically that God has plans preassigned for individuals and the course of history; but nevertheless, it is up to us to fulfill them -- that is our challenge and purpose in this world. Connecting it to our parasha, he highlights the point where Moses spoke to the people, who did not listen to him for being broken-spirited. Just like Reuven, Moses had a mission to fulfill. He eventually did so,. despite doubts and setbacks, because he knew that there was an expectation of him to act and do what is right.

We are in the same situation - the writing is on the wall, on the TV screens and in the newspapers of the tragic loss of human life and infrastructure which occurred in Haiti. I also believe that it is clear what our responsibilities are, as we are created בצלם אלוהים, in God's image. As Jews, we have an additional responsibility to look after those who have been made to feel like strangers in their own backyards, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (and countless other times in history). Thus, we must not allow ourselves to be like Reuven, saying that if only we knew how history would record these events, would have worked harder. Thus, we should continue to steadfastly support the amazing fundraising and relief efforts that have been put into place, despite the setbacks that will occur. We will rather be like Moses in our Parsha, persevering because we believe that we will persevere and make a difference. I chose to make a donation to American Jewish World Service , and I encourage you, if you have the means, to contribute to this or any other organization helping with relief efforts. There is no such thing as too little.

To close on a happier note, this week's parsha is truly everywhere. I spent this afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and came across this famous medieval representation of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh in Exodus 7. As the sense was meant to be satirizing the royal clashes of the artist's time, there is no doubt that the cry of שלח את עמי resonated then as well. I hope that it will resonate with all of us this Shabbat, as we remember the multiple steps involved in God's call, that we are only free from tyranny if we take responsibility to work towards Justice in the Jewish community, in our society, and for all of God's creations.

Shabbat Shalom.