Sacred Resistance (on this moment)

There are three moments in the first three weekly portions of Exodus which help to define our moment of sacred resistance to the Trumpian onslaught. On the Shabbat which was the day after the inauguration we began reading the book of Exodus. Exodus begins with the declaration that “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) As most commentators through the ages have mentioned, this cannot be taken literally. Even though Joseph was dead by this time, it is not believable that a Pharaoh could take the throne in Egypt without knowing of Joseph, the viceroy, the second most important person in the Egyptian monarchy. The “not knowing” must be metaphorical. Either the new Pharaoh spurned Joseph’s family, cutting them off from the privileges of being connected to the royal house; or the new Pharaoh intentionally cut Joseph out of the history of Egypt. Either way, of a morning, the house of Jacob was adrift with no protection.

The analogy to the current moment is all too obvious and painful. We, the liberal community in general, and the liberal Jewish community in particular, grew comfortable with access to power, with invitations to the White House, with steady though halting progress on certain social issues (despite uncomfortable lack of progress on other issues). We were not prepared for that morning when we would wake up and find that a new king had arisen who did not know Joseph. A new president who was intentionally trying to undo everything the previous president had accomplished. A new president to whom we had no access, and over whom we held no sway—even fanciful sway. No more Hanukkah parties at the White House for us. We were adrift with no protection. Worse, and more dangerous, front-line and affected communities (Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQI, Native Americans) were without a foothold or leverage in government.

The second moment is at the beginning of the second portion in Exodus. When Moses brought God’s promise of redemption to the Israelites when Moses told this to the Israelites, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” The latter half of the verse would be literally translated “from shortness of breath and hard bondage.” (6:9) This moment comes on the heels of Moses’ first very unsuccessful confrontation with Pharaoh. When Moses demanded, as God had commanded him, “Let my people go so that they may worship me in the wilderness,” Pharaoh’s response was defiant: “I do not know God, nor will I let Israel go.” (5:1-2) In fact, Pharaoh made the Israelite slaves’ working conditions more oppressive. This brought Moses to exclaim to God: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” (5:22-23)

There is a dangerous connection between the “shortness of breath” and the inability to listen to Moses’ message of redemption. The overwhelming oppression of servitude brings with it the inability to see the larger picture, to envision beyond the present. A slave is dominated by force to the point that they do not look up, let alone dream of a new future.

We are now in danger of being overwhelmed by the oppressive and immoral orders, regulations, and soon, laws that are emanating and will emanate from the Trump administration and the Republican Congress, to the point that we do not look up—that we resort to survival mode. It is important in this moment as a spiritual exercise to remember that times will change, that we have a vision of justice and we will fight for it.

Finally, the third Torah portion in Exodus begins with God’s command to Moses “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them.” (10:1) The Hebrew, however, might (perhaps should) be translated as “Come to Pharaoh.” Why would God use this turn of phrase? In all the previous times, Moses went out of the city, spoke to God, and God said to him “Go [lech].” (e.g. 7:16) There are two ways to understand this.

First one might say that God was telling Moses: “Do not worry, I will be there with you. You are going to Pharaoh, but you are coming to Me.” Or in other words, when you go to see Pharaoh you will not be alone.

On the other hand, there are those who interpret this as saying that God is teaching Moses that even Pharaoh was created in the image of God. Therefore when Moses was coming to Pharaoh he was actually coming to God. This might be harder to swallow, but every person is created in the image of God—even Pharaoh.

In our moment this means that we must remember that when we are practicing sacred resistance, when we are confronting our Pharaoh, that we are not alone. Furthermore, we must remember that even Donald Trump was created in the image of God, that there is a Divine spark which might be reached even in Trump. In fact, as Martin Luther King taught us, it is only because of this that nonviolence works. “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” Justice is love in action. (As King reminded us, we don’t have to like our enemies, only love them.) The only way we can successfully wield love to achieve justice, is by believing that our opponent is capable of changing.

And so, in this moment when we are called to sacred resistance we have to start with accepting that there is a new Pharaoh, we are beyond the time of mourning; we must not be overwhelmed; and we must remember that in the moment of confrontation God is with us, we are in fact coming to God.

The economics of values (On Immigration)

On Sunday I hit the road with my daughter Shachar, Jonathan Klein (the Executive Director of CLUE-LA), and Gina Palencaar (Campaign Communications Director at LAANE). We drove up to San Francisco to bring a message to Senator Feinstein from the Jewish community. We were joined at the Senator’s office by Rabbi Heather Miller who had done much of the organizing and was representing Beth Chayim Chadashim representatives of the JCRC of San Francisco and Bend the Arc. We had a rally outside the office building and then met with the Senator Feinstein’s representative. Continue reading

Immigration and the scoundrels

What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?

It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.

The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience. Continue reading

On Immigration and Holiness

What might it mean to be holy? One interesting definition is found in the thirteenth century commentary by the Spanish Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, often referred to as Nachmanides. In commenting on the verse from Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I, God your God am holy,” Nachmanides says that this is a demand not to be a “scoundrel within the domain of the Torah.” That is, one should not abuse sacred law by justifying immoral acts which are technically legal. (One of his examples is that one should not be a glutton even if one eats only kosher foods.)

This commentary came to mind while listening to a debate on immigration recently. The advocate for a hard line on undocumented immigrants repeated over and over that “these people” had broken the law and therefore, despite their having been in the country for many years, and despite their having been productive members of society—holding jobs, raising a family, participating in their communities—they should not be allowed to acquire a driver’s license, they should not be allowed to get health insurance, they should not be allowed to work. Their lives should be made sufficiently intolerable that they leave the country. Eleven million people.

This seems to me to be the exact secular definition of a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah. Continue reading