Moses and Aaron: Allies for Justice

The Inauguration is upon us. The peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of our American democracy goes into effect on Friday. Yet this time power is being transferred to a man who enters the office with the lowest approval rating in recent history, who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, whose entry into office will be marked by protests across the country of unprecedented scale.

There is an intriguing juxtaposition of these events and our Torah reading this week, parashat Shemot. This week we read in the Torah the beginning of the Exodus. As we move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, we make the transition to a book of a family’s saga to the book of a national epic. Jacob and his sons have settled in Egypt and have become a people.

This people, however, is seen as a threat to the new Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh who, the text says, did not know Joseph. In other words, he did not know his history, he did not know of the relationship and bond between the majority Egyptians and the minority Israelites. Seeing them as his enemies, as those who could even overthrow him, he enslaves them.

We are introduced to the character of Moses, who will dominate the rest of the Torah. Born a slave, but sent off by his mother, he is raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. When as a young man he sees an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, something stirs in him and he kills the guard, then flees to Midian to escape punishment.

It is there in Midian he makes a new life, a new family. And it is there in Midian that he gets the call that will change the course of his life and of the world.

Tending sheep one day he notices a bush on fire, but the fire is not consuming the bush. From the bush comes a voice, the voice of God, who tells Moses that he is to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. After some argument—Moses is a reluctant hero—and assurances that God will support him and he will have his brother Aaron as a helper, Moses answers the call and heads back to Egypt.

As the story continues, a story that we know from retelling, from the Passover celebration, or even popular imagination, Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelites. Pharaoh continues to refuse, and Moses exhortations get stronger, more strident and when accompanied by the plagues, more perilous to the Egyptian society.

It is a powerful story of telling truth to power, of standing up to despotism, of making the plea for equality, liberation and justice. It is a story that we know resonated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrated this past week. And it is a powerful story that will hopefully resonate with us as new leadership takes over at the highest levels of our government.

There is, as our Torah teaches in this story, the opportunity and obligation to call out that which we know to be wrong. That we do not need to be nor should we be silent in the face of oppression. And that we have the power to confront our rulers when we seek change.

But in addition to reaching up, we also must reach across. We must reach across to our neighbor, our fellow community members. For what is most important, what forms the strongest society, what allows us to be successful in what we hope to accomplish, are the relationships that we are able to forge.

The Torah models this for us as well. For Moses knows that he can not go it alone. Standing in front of the bush he says in the text that he is “slow of speech,” and asks God for someone else to be the divine emissary. But God insists, and tells him the Aaron his brother will be by his side. We can say that “slow of speech” is up for interpretation, so while it can be interpreted as a speech impediment, or as lack of eloquence, we can also say that Moses understands that one person’s words by themselves may not be that effective. That what is needed is not a soloist, but a chorus.

Aaron’s presence symbolizes the strength in numbers. Aaron’s presence represents the need for allies in the fight for justice.

And how does one be an ally? Aaron and Moses meet for the first time shortly after the episode of the burning bush. Moses returns to his family in Midian, and prepares to return to Egypt. We read in the text, “God said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’ He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.” (Exodus 4:27)

Aaron doesn’t wait for Moses to return to Egypt. Aaron goes out to meet Moses where he is. And that is how we become allies, how we form strong relationships: we meet people where they are. We go out of our way to connect with them. We recognize that it isn’t about the “I” it is about the “we.” We support each other, we give of ourselves, we uplift each other’s tactics even when they differ. We make sure that challenging external threats is not compromised by needless division and infighting.

We turn towards, and not against each other.

It is through these relationships that we can overthrow the Pharaoh, free the oppressed, envision a better world and climb the mountain of God.

Could This One Text Message Have Saved the Lives of 3000 People?

The story of the Golden Calf, which we read in last week’s Torah portion, is a great lesson in punctuality.

In the story, the Israelites have left Egypt and have made their way to Mount Sinai. There they are to get the Torah from God which will form the basis for their new community and new covenant. Moses is to go up on the mountain for 40 days and return with the Torah, but the people start to panic and lose faith, and ask Aaron, Moses’s brother who was left in charge, to make them an idol. God and Moses both get angry, and the result is Moses smashes the stone tablets of the commandments and executes 3,000 of the Israelites.

So where does punctuality fit in? What prompted the Israelites losing faith in God and Moses was the fact that Moses was late coming down the mountain: “When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32:1)

The ancient rabbis in a midrash (Torah commentary) ask the obvious question of the story. How long, they ask, was Moses late in coming down the mountain? Their answer? Six hours. Their answer comes from a play on the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “delayed,” is boshesh. The rabbis deliberately misread this to be bo shesh, or “come six.” Six hours. The Israelites waited six hours before building an idol.

It is an interesting question: How much time must elapse before we assume something is wrong? How long do we wait before we move on? Or give up? [I remember in college talk of the 15-minute rule, that if a professor did not show up for 15 minutes class was cancelled.] Did the Israelites not wait long enough? The story of the Golden Calf teaches that patience is a virtue, but it can also be tested.

Today, we could imagine that Moses could have simply texted Aaron that he was going to be late, and all of this mess might have been averted. But that too might not have been the best solution.moses-text5


Our contemporary technology with cell phones and texting and other communication apps make life very interesting for us. There is a lot of talk about how technology is making the world smaller—that we are now closely connected with those who are geographically far away from us.

At the same time that these apps make the world smaller, they are also making time longer.

I think about my own habits. I am late in picking up my older son from high school more often than I care to admit. I tend to get caught up with things at work or home and do not leave enough time to drive cross town to the school. But because I rely on texting to make a connection—saying “be there soon” or “I’m on my way”—then I feel that its OK to be late. So when I’m supposed to be at the school at 5:00, I text at 4:55 that I’m on my way, and show up around 5:15-5:20. Texting thus just made time longer.

I’m not condoning this behavior, but it is a symptom of our day and age. We feel that we can be less punctual because we send a text or a Facebook message or whatever to indicate we are going to be late, then we don’t feel bad not showing up on time.

We can, though, extend time in positive ways. Earlier this week we had Leap Day, the day added to the end of February every four years (except in years divisible by 400) in order to account for the fact that the Gregorian year and the astronomical year don’t exactly line up. And in our Jewish calendar we are currently in the middle of our Leap Month added to the calendar nine times in a 13-year cycle, to balance the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is necessary to keep the holidays in their correct seasons. In both of these cases we extend time in order to make things work better.

But when we extend time in negative ways, in accepting lateness because of easier communication, in thinking we can send a text rather than showing up at an appointed hour, we invite trouble. We need only look at the story of Moses and the Golden Calf to see what disaster might ensue from a lack of punctuality and a lack of respect for another’s time.

The Torah portion this week, which immediately follows the Golden Calf, speaks of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites are to carry with them as they journey through the wilderness. (An earlier portion gave the instructions, now we read how they were implemented.) But immediately prior to the description of the construction, the Torah gives a reminder of Shabbat, the sacred seventh day of rest:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that God has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)

A traditional reading of this juxtaposition connects the idea of Shabbat with the Tabernacle, that even though the Israelites are about to engage in a massive labor project, that they must not neglect the commandment to cease from that labor on Shabbat. (And indeed the type of labor done in the process of building the Tabernacle is the source for the types of labor traditionally prohibited on Shabbat.)

However we could read these verses about observing Shabbat not as a prologue to the building of the Tabernacle, but as an epilogue to the building of the Golden Calf. The Torah reminds of the sanctity of time immediately following a story in which a misuse of time led to communal discord.

Time is sacred. Maybe the Israelites should have waited more. But on the other hand, maybe they should not have been kept waiting in the first place.