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When we tell the story of this week’s Torah reading, Exodus, more often than not – in the movies, in the Passover Haggadah – we begin the story with slavery. Avadim hayinu l’pharo b’mitzrayim, we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. If the book of Exodus started with chapter two, the retelling would not be wrong. An enslaved people led to freedom by God’s mighty hand. But there is a chapter one, and this morning I want to suggest that to ignore that chapter, the story of how we became slaves, is to miss not just a critical dimension of the text, but also the broader arc of the narrative, and its enduring message for us today.
When the Children of Israel first arrived in Egypt, they were anything but oppressed. Joseph’s extended family held an important place in Egyptian society and in the Egyptian imagination. Numerous and prolific – yes. Slaves – no. But in chapter one, verse eight, the temperature begins to change. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Biblical knowledge is never just ordinary knowledge. This verse signals a substantive cultural shift taking place. Not only did this new Pharaoh not know the Israelites, but he felt threatened by them, or maybe he just needed to point to people a little different in order to secure his base. In the modern vernacular, we would call it “othering.” A country once defined by “us” is transformed to “us” and “them.” Pharaoh understood the dynamic, so he played on the fear. He mixed it with hate and branded the Israelites a fifth column, an enemy within. The thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides spells out Pharaoh’s shrewd strategy to oppress the Israelites. He didn’t do it all at once. Pharaoh suspected there would be resistance, so he first changed the cultural climate; then he changed the laws; then he changed the definition of truth. All very slowly and all very subtly – so subtly that when the decree to kill the Israelite boys finally came, it seemed neither odd nor objectionable. So, too, with slavery. What began as labor became forced labor, then backbreaking labor, and by the time anyone looked up, the children of Israel were ruthlessly enslaved. Nachmanides identifies not one, not two, not three, but four successive stages, each one chipping away at civil society, each one normalizing what would have otherwise been unconscionable, an incremental process discernible with hindsight but far more difficult to see in the moment.
The key to it all was not the taskmasters, nor for that matter, Pharaoh himself. Social norms could not have come undone owing solely to the designs of one man. It took the complicity of many others for Pharaoh’s evil strategies to be realized. Imagine the initial befuddlement of the typical Egyptian when that nice Israelite neighbor was deemed “other” and “less than.” Maybe “Joe Egyptian” thought the bile Pharaoh was spewing could be shrugged off as the indulgent excesses of a charismatic leader: “That’s just Pharaoh being Pharaoh.” There may have been some self-interest involved, a sort of compartmentalizing Faustian self-dealing. “All right, I don’t like the guy, but he is good for Egypt. He projects strength, and just look at all the construction: These pyramids not only boost the economy but represent a golden age gone by.” There may have been all sorts of reasons to give Pharaoh a pass. And let’s be honest, at a certain point, it gets kind of uncomfortable to take a stand, to be the odd one out. In an authoritarian context there is no one moment when dissent dies. There is no bell that rings. The line between self-interest and self-preservation is not a clear one. Conscience just sort of crumbles, until like a frog in the frying pan, by the time you think of jumping, it is too late. The unraveling of Egyptian society did not happen all at once, nor was it solely due to Pharaoh. It happened one person at a time. There was complicity; there was enabling; there was inertia; there was fear; there was self-interest; and yes, there were undoubtedly true believers who were just waiting for a leader willing to finally tell it like it is. But there are always those people, but they will act openly only when they believe they can get away with it. As De Toqueville wrote, “Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.” Why did the bottom fall out? Because it happened slowly; because it happened subtly; and because, to paraphrase President Obama, there came a point when no one was willing to say this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for, even reasonable people, who, when push came to shove, would push back.
The first chapter of Exodus is not a pretty one, but the good news is that it is only one chapter and it is only the first one. We have to understand how the Israelites became slaves not just because it is part of the story, but because it explains the rest of the story. Remember, Moses survives his birth owing to an act of civil disobedience by the midwives. It is altogether significant that the road to redemption begins with the decision of the lowly midwives to disobey the decree of an all-powerful Pharaoh. It teaches that moral courage is within everyone’s reach. So, too, it is altogether significant that it is Pharaoh’s daughter who saves Moses, teaching that no matter how close you are to the throne – even as close as Pharaoh’s daughter – there can be no abdication of empathy and conscience. The fact that Moses risks and loses everything by striking down the Egyptian assaulting a slave affirms that moral leadership comes not by protecting self-interest, but by protecting the interest of the very person who has no one else to protect them. The pattern is clear. If the step-by-step degradation of Egyptian society happened by way of individuals justifying their complicity until it was too late, then the same was true of liberation. The road to redemption didn’t happen all at once with the splitting of the sea. Redemption happened step-by-step, one upstander at a time, making decisions small and large to push back, deciding not to bend one’s conscience, but rather to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. The Exodus story reminds us not only that no matter how dark the night, the dawn of redemption beckons. It also reminds us to never underestimate the role that every individual – each one of us – plays in bringing about that light.
Friends, we are living through history. We will remember the events of this past week for the rest of our lives. It is a lot to take in and we can all be forgiven – I certainly hope you will forgive me – for fumbling for the answers or even for the right questions to ask. I don’t know exactly when the first domino fell leading to Wednesday’s attack. I don’t know where the precise line is between Trump and Trumpism, what is the disease and what is the symptom. I can’t tell how much of the right wing’s toxic hate is particular to them and how much can be subsumed into the hyper-polarization of society as a whole, including both the far right and the far left. And I certainly don’t know if Wednesday’s events will mark the moment our nation came undone or will be remembered as a “Have you no decency?” turning point to civility. Hindsight takes no great shakes. Prescience and prophecy are a bit harder to come by. There is far more we don’t know than we do know.
What I do know is that violence is violence. There is no justification, no moral equivocation, no bigger context to be understood regarding the lawless behavior we witnessed this past week and in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway. This is not about dissent, the marketplace of ideas, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly. This is criminal activity and both the perpetrators and those who incited it must be held accountable.
What I also know is that words matter. Whether it is the Capitol being ransacked, Rabin being assassinated, or any other trauma in the distant or recent past, bloodshed does not materialize out of thin air. Lies have consequences; hateful speech functions as a super-spreader with far-reaching and violent results. There is a reason the rabbis equated evil speech with bloodshed. They understood the connection and so must we. Nobody anywhere on the political spectrum should get a pass for hate speech, for willful and malicious distortions, or for out-and-out lies. If we want to stem the violence, then we need to start the clock well before blood is shed and root out the forces that give our cultural fires their oxygen.
Finally, I know that to be a Jew is to take personal agency for our role in the unfolding drama of our lives. As Heschel wrote: “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous.” Remember, the defining moment of Moses’s moral development was when he saw his kinsman oppressed, and looking this way and that way, he realized that nobody was stepping up, so he stepped up. Ever since, we know that it is by this metric that our moral worth is measured: whether, in the face of it all, we choose the path of indifference or declare ourselves as stakeholders in the moral health of society.
As taught in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers: B’makom sheh-ein anashim, tishtadel lihiyot ish. “In a place where there are no upstanders, be an upstander.” It is really not more complicated than that. The only question is whether we as a nation and as individuals will learn from this dark week and step up to the calling of the hour.