By sheer coincidence, the Torah portion (parsha) reading for Shabbat following the inauguration is Shemot, the first five chapters of the book of Exodus. Anyone who has taken part in a Passover Seder will be familiar with much of the meaning of Exodus. The story is one of darkness, followed by redemption and light, ending on a note of faith in great things to come.
Turning Curses into Blessings
In the aftermath of what must be the most depressing and nasty election campaigns in U.S. history, capped by a very dark inaugural address, the story of Exodus gives hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in December 2015 wrote an inspirational commentary on this very parsha, “Turning Curses into Blessings.” He remarks on how the book of Genesis ends on “almost a serene note.” Then there was a new Pharaoh, who set into motion oppression against the people of Israel. Then, continues Rabbi Sacks, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they spread.” In other words, he says, “The worse things get, the stronger we become.”
“Departure of the Israelites,” by David Roberts, 1829 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Women’s March, by VOA Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The multitudes of the Israelites said they would not have any more of Pharaoh’s oppression and embarked on a great march. On Saturday, January 21, the day immediately after the inauguration of President Trump, people across the nation and around the world declared they would not stand for the erosion of civil rights his rhetoric and views represent. The story of the protests, like the book of Exodus, offers much reason to hope, for us in the present and, more important, our children in the future.
The book of Exodus tells of suffering under an oppressive tyrant. For the Israelites, things get worse before they get better. However, in the end, they – with divine intervention – rid themselves of Pharaoh.
“Crossing the Red Sea,” by Nicholas Poussin
Israel’s Escape from Egypt (illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company)
Hardening One’s Heart
Pharaoh’s heart became harder with each passing plague set upon the Egyptians. During the initial plagues, Pharaoh had the opportunity to let the Israelites go. Eventually, however, God took away Pharaoh’s free will, hardening his heart for him.
Jacques Joseph Tissot, Moses Speaks to Pharaoh (watercolor circa 1896–1902)
Because everyone is capable of redemption, Pharaoh had one last chance at the Sea of Reeds. With his heart ever hardened, he led his troops into the sea. I find myself asking what will happen to President Trump’s heart. Will his heart soften, or will he lead his followers into the salty depths?
Speaking for All People
In this parsha, Chapter 4 (verses 10 through 17), Moses tells God, “Please, O Lord, I hav never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation). The text continues: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'”
Jacques Joseph Tissot, Moses and Aaron Speak to the People (watercolor circa 1896–1902)
In other words, all people – despite their disability – are equal in God’s creation. His brother, Aaron, assists him with speaking, but eventually it is Moses who leads his people out of darkness to a land of milk and honey.