Saturday, February 4, 2017

Speaking Truth to Power: Moses, Pharaoh and Executive Orders. February 3, 2017 – Parashat Bo

This week’s Parasha, Bo, contains the last 3 of the ten plagues: Locusts, Darkness, Slaying of the 1st Born.  But the plagues themselves, as powerful as they are, take a back seat to the dramatic confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.  With each successive plague, Moses speaks truth to power and becomes more insistent that Pharaoh free the Israelites. Pharaoh, in turn becomes more intransigent.
Now there are some sticky theological issues in our parasha:  particularly the fact that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” so that the deck is stacked against him.  It is very clear that, although the dialogue takes place between Moses and Pharaoh, it is really a standoff between God and the King of Egypt who was perceived to be a god.  The fight that takes place therefore, is as much a cautionary tale against idolatry as it is a story about good triumphing over evil.

One of the key questions that must be pondered when looking at the story of Moses is why he feels compelled to leave a life of comfort in Pharaoh’s court and set out on the path of leadership.  We read in the beginning chapters of Exodus how Moses’ consciousness was awakened when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.  The text reads (Exodus 2:11-12)

“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out among his kinfolk and observed their burdens; and he saw and Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man – one of his brothers.  He looked all around him, and when he saw that there was no man, he struck the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.”

There is a commentary on the words: “He looked all around him and saw that there was no man…”.  The rabbis asked what this means.  Was he making sure that there were no witnesses so he could get away with his act?  Or was something else going on?  One school of thought teaches that Moses realized that, if he didn’t act to prevent this act of brutality, no one else would.  He was called by circumstances to stand up and act – he had no choice.

Throughout his life, a key aspect of Moses’ character is that he speaks out when he sees injustice.  He challenges God on several occasions when God is so angry with the Israelites that God wants to destroy them all and start over again.  Moses convinces God not to do so.  There are also times when Moses confronts his people with anger and chastisement. 

Our prophets received the mantle of leadership from Moses.  Our prophetic texts are filled with recrimination.  The role of the prophet is to call out inequities, falsehoods and corruption whenever they appear.  The prophets were independent of political affiliation.  They were God’s voice in a world that was increasingly corrupt and they spoke out when leaders abused their power and their people.

Of course, we no longer live in a prophetic age.  And yet, the Torah teaches us that, just as the prophets received the mantle of leadership from Moses, we, too are called - when we see injustice- that we have no choice but to speak out.  In particular, the commandment “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” appears no less than 36 times in the Torah.  Judaism has both inherited and passed along to each successive generation the call to take action against injustice.  We have a long tradition of activism.  In our nation, Jews have been on the front lines of the battles for Civil and Voting Rights, worker’s rights, the Women’s Movement, anti- War Protests, Environmentalism and many, many other movements for social change.

It is for this reason that so many national Jewish organizations including all branches of the Reform Movement, The Anti-Defamation League, The Movement for Conservative Judaism, American Jewish World Service, HIAS, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America; as well the Jewish Community Relations Council here in Denver, and many congregations including the lay and professional leadership of Temple Emanuel have spoken out against the recent Presidential Executive Order on Refugees and Immigration that was enacted this past week.  In the document that we circulated within our community yesterday we wrote the following:

We, the lay and professional leadership of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO, believe that it is imperative that our nation be secure and that all our citizens live without fear and in peace. We also acknowledge that the sad reality of terrorism and brutality experienced over the past two and a half decades has taught us that we must be ever-vigilant as we protect our nation.

At the same time, we also believe in human dignity and basic values. Our Torah teaches that all people are created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26-27). Real dangers arise when entire groups of people are set apart and identified as potential threats simply because of their religious beliefs and countries of origin. It is for this reason that we join with the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and many other national Jewish organizations, as well as the Colorado Jewish Community Relations Council, in condemning the recent Presidential Executive Order that that bans citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

After the letter was sent I received many responses from members of the congregation.  The overwhelming majority were supportive, yet a number of responses were critical of the idea of the congregation and its leadership making a statement about something that was perceived to be “political.”  Most people who wrote were concerned that we were getting involved in an area that had nothing to do with the Synagogue.  The purpose of the congregation is to provide spiritual guidance and Jewish tradition, they wrote.  We should stay out of politics and stop attacking the president.  Others felt that our statement was misguided because President Trump is doing what he feels is correct in keeping our country safe.  If it takes 90 days to review policies to make sure that no terrorists enter our country, and, during those 90 days, some people might be inconvenienced, it’s a small price to pay for protecting our nation.

In regards to so-called “politics” from the Bema, I fully agree that political language should not be heard in the sanctuary.  But this is not political, it is moral.  To single out 7 Muslim countries while ignoring others sends a dangerous message to both the world and to ourselves.  As I understand it, of the millions of refugees who are fleeing the absolute hell of Syria, Iraq and North Africa, less than 10,000 a year were permitted into the United States under recent policy.  Every single refugee who was admitted underwent a rigorous and thorough vetting process by the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Naturalization Services.  Furthermore, while we, as a nation, have had to deal with incidents of terror on our soil – many of which were committed by men and women who came under the sway of Islamic Fundamentalism - not one act of terror was successfully committed by a Syrian refugee.  Most were radicalized here in the United States.  In addition, of the Muslim terrorists who were successful in carrying out the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of them came from Saudi Arabia – one of the countries excluded from this Executive order.

As Jews, we know all too well the consequences of policies that ban refugees from the shores of our nation.  On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from Eastern Europe, and a few were officially "stateless."  These refugees were fleeing certain death and they were refused entry into Cuba and the United States.  Eventually, they were forced to return to Germany where they all perished in the Nazi death machine.

For me, it’s also personal.  My mother was born in Leipzig Germany.  She and my grandparents lived through Krystalnacht the “Night of Broken Glass” – November 9th, 1938 – when Hitler’s armed thugs marched through the streets of Germany and Austria, burning synagogues, looting stores and arresting thousands of Jewish men.  My mother and Grandparents were among the lucky few who were able to flee in the weeks following that fateful night that marked the beginning of Hitler’s Final Solution.  They only reason that they were able to obtain a visa to our country was because they had Russian, not German passports and the Russian quota for immigrants still had room since no one was able to leave the Soviet Union at that time.

Our nation has a proud history of welcoming those fleeing oppression and persecution.  When we turn our back on those in need we are not only denying their request for help, we are also denying the highest values upon which our nation was built.

Another troubling aspect of this ban is that, for the first time in a long time, our nation is on record singling out one particular religious tradition- Islam – from entering our shores.  To paint all of Islam with a single brush is not only immoral, it is dangerous.  It feeds the fires of extremism here and abroad.

Those of us who oppose this ban are speaking out – not as a political tactic, but in response to a moral imperative that is essential to our essence as Jews.  Like Moses, we are called to speak truth to power when we see our values being trampled.  Silence is complicity.  If we do not speak out now, then when CAN we speak out?

As such, I will be participating tomorrow afternoon – on Shabbat – in a rally at Civic Plaza – alongside colleagues from the Interfaith Alliance of Denver.  As a rule, I usually refrain from participating in public events on Shabbat, but this cause is too important for me to remain silent.  Like Frederick Douglas and Abraham Joshua Heschel, I will be praying with my feet on Civic Plaza tomorrow afternoon.  I urge you to join with me in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

For those who may be uncomfortable with the thought of their rabbi participating in a public demonstration that may be perceived as hostile to our President, I understand.  But I am not participating for partisan or political reasons.  I will march and I will let my voice be heard when my Jewish values are being attacked.  I would be happy to sit down and talk with anyone of you who feel that I am misguided.  We can agree to disagree.

My Dear Friends, so much of our nation is divided along political lines.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to live together when politics become personal.  We need to move beyond the election and find ways of seeing the human and the holy in one another.  On this Shabbat when we tell the story of our liberation as a people, let us also work to liberate ourselves from the polarization that has gripped our nation.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Well spoken, Rabbi Black.
    Kathy Steinberg

  2. Well done, Rabbi Black.

    I am a Baptist pastor and I lead a flock that is politically diverse in the same ways I gather your synagogue to be. Know how much you encourage, inspire, and exhort with your care for your words, and your people, and even those who are not your people. Thank you for your moral light.

    May God bless and keep you.


    Ryon Price