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.

Feeling With, Mourning With, Living With

I’ve spent the better part of this week mourning someone I did not know.

Through the power of the internet and social media I was recently introduced to “Superman” Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy who had suffered from leukemia and died last week. His parents are both rabbis in the Chicago area, and while I do not know them, the internet makes the world smaller, and we have friends and colleagues in common.

I was introduced to Sam late in his short life. When he was first diagnosed last year his parents began a blog Superman Sam to chronicle the cancer journey. Primarily a means to keep family, friends and congregants updated, the blog follows the journey from diagnosis to treatment, to remission, to recurrence, to death. I only first saw the blog when friends of mine on Facebook began posting links to it a few months ago, after Sam’s cancer had recurred and there were no more treatment options. It is devastating to read.

The outpouring of emotion has been tremendous. Friends and rabbis have written testimonials. (For some moving words check out Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr) Sam’s story has been all over the Internet and major new outlets. A thousand people attended his funeral in Chicago last week. A group of rabbis are organizing a “Shave for the Brave,” a head-shaving event to raise money for children’s cancer research. Many people who mourn know the Sommer family. And many more do not.

How do we mourn for someone we don’t know? From an objective standpoint the loss of a child is one of the most devastating things to happen to anyone. To lose someone we are charged with caring for is tragic, and it upsets the normal course of events. And reading Sam’s story is all that more devastating for me because he was my younger son’s age when he was diagnosed, and looking at Erez when I read about Sam-much as I did when the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary occurred one year ago this week-ignites feelings of recognition, connection, identification.

And empathy.

Empathy. This is how we mourn for someone we don’t know.

Not long after hearing about Sam’s death a short video was making its way around the Internet. It is about empathy, and the fact that we need to cultivate empathy, rather than sympathy. You can see the full video below, but in short, empathy embodies four main qualities: the ability to take another’s perspective, not judging, recognizing emotion in other people and communicating. Empathy is about going down to where a person is and telling them you understand what it is like, and that they are not alone.

Empathy is also the understanding that nothing you say is going to make things better, nor should we even try. The fact of one’s presence is enough. Real human connection through empathy is what sustains us in difficult times, not magic words.

In this week’s Torah portion, we get a lesson on empathy from God. We begin the book of Exodus this week, and the first portion, Shemot, speaks of the Israelites in Egypt. After a long and peaceful residence in Egypt, the Israelites are enslaved and oppressed by Pharaoh. They cry out to God and, the Torah teaches, God hears the cry, remembers the covenant, and “takes notice of them.”

Later, when talking to Moses, whom God sends to free the Israelites, God says, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and then bring them out of that land…” (Exodus 3:7-8)

God hears and understands, and takes the perspective of the people. God does not judge and communicates to the Israelites through Moses and Aaron. And God, through Moses, goes down to where the Israelites are in order to be with them in their suffering. And this is what will lead them out. God is with them–and now us–in suffering.

This is empathy. This is, as the video defines it, “feeling with.” In order to be fully human, we need to cultivate empathy so that we are able to give it and receive it. The plight of a people oppressed should inspire emotions with us. The loss of a child we do not know should inspire emotions within us. It is the first step to healing and transformation. It is the first step to deeply connecting with another.

Empathy requires examining ourselves, then making a connection with another, which is so necessary in order to face the difficulties that beset us, the tragedies that challenge us. It’s how we mourn together, how we cry together, how we live together.

The video: