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For Pharoah, For the Israelites or For Moses?

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, January 17, 2015

With the release of the movie Selma, there have been a lot of postings on line from rabbis who were part of the civil rights movement and from their children. One which made a particular impression on me was from Rabbi Joshua Plaut, cousin of Rabbi Jonathan Plaut, who served Temple Emanu-El of San Jose in the 1990’s.

Rabbi Joshua Plaut wrote about his father Rabbi Walter Plaut participating in the first Interfaith Freedom Ride, from Washington D.C. to Tallahassee Florida in June of 1961. The president of his congregation, Temple Emanu-El of Great Neck New York, had sent a telegram urging him not to go and telling him that his participation was “ill-advised” and would divide the congregation. In an online archive I was able to see the telegram. The Temple president also included mention of the 4 upcoming Bar Mitzvahs and the rabbi’s responsibility for their preparation.

Rabbi Walter Plaut , a refugee from Nazi Germany, and a student of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, felt that he had to go, that this was his religious duty, regardless of consequences. The ride received a great deal of publicity as the riders faced significant hardship and were arrested upon arrival in Tallahassee.  That arrest and subsequent trial was known in the law books as Dresner v City of Tallahassee, Dresner, being Rabbi Israel Dresner, another Reform rabbi, who was still a troublemaker when I knew him in New Jersey in the 1980’s. That case went up through the system all the way to the Supreme Court which in 1963 refused to hear it on technical grounds. Rabbi Walter Plaut continued to give interviews and speak about his experiences until his untimely death in 1964, of a terminal illness, he already knew he had when participating in the freedom ride in 1961. 

I had the opportunity to see the movie Selma earlier this week and one of the things that really made an impression on me was the portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King during his moments of doubt and discouragement. Even after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, it was not a given that his efforts would be successful. He second guessed himself and worried about leading his people into danger.

Our Torah portion this week begins with Moses having suffered a significant setback. In last week’s portion, he responded to God’s call at the burning bush, and went down to Egypt. He proclaimed God’s message, the promise of redemption. But instead of things getting better, they seemed to get worse. The Pharaoh bore down even harder on the Israelites, requiring them to gather the straw to make their bricks. And the Israelites responded by becoming angry at Moses, cursing him and his mission. “May the Eternal look up on you and punish you,” they cursed ,”for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers, putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”

In response Moses cried out to God, “O Eternal, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? 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.” That is the context for the beginning of this week’s portion and for God’s command to Moses to have Aaron cast down his staff so that it turns into a serpent, the section of the Torah portion that Daniela chose for her reading.

The commentaries ask for whom were these wonders performed?  On the simplest level, the peshat, it seems obvious that all of these wonders were to impress the Egyptians.  They ask, who is this God, Adonai, and these wonders are meant to give them a sense of Adonai’s power.  We have a sense of these wonders making a strong impression. After several plagues the magicians will beg Pharaoh to relent and admit God’s superior power. Eventually, even Pharaoh will acknowledge not only God’s power, but also God’s justice, “I have sinned,” he will cry out. “God is right while I and my people are wicked.”

But there is another tradition in understanding for whom these wonders were performed-- the level of drash. In Exodus chapter 7 verse 9 it says “Tnu lachem mofeyt” which is often translated as “Produce your marvel” but the rabbis translate it- this miracle is for you- lachem, for you, that is for the people of Israel. The Israelites were unable to hear Moses’ words because of a shortness of spirit and because of the burdens of slavery. Even more than Pharaoh and his courtiers, they need this display of God’s might, (these great opportunities for special effects in future Exodus movies) to gain confidence in Moses’ words. Seeing these wonders, seeing the plagues strike the Egyptians and being spared in Goshen, convinces them of the reality of God’s promises.

But after seeing the movie Selma, I am thinking that there was a third purpose to these wonders. Perhaps the “for you” doesn’t refer to the whole people, but refers particularly to Moses. If he is to lead, he must overcome his fears and discouragement.

Moses began as a reluctant leader, putting forth one reason after another for why he was not the one.  Like Abraham, who no sooner arrives in Canaan then he encounters famine, Moses’ mission begins with failure and setbacks. For the Egyptians and the Israelites the plagues were an exhibition of the power of God, but this first miracle, the staff turning into a snake, this first miracle God explains, this one is for you, Moses, to turn your heart to courage.  This will allow Moses to persevere, and in his own perseverance provide witness to the Israelites of his confidence in God’s promise.

There is a Hassidic tradition that freedom began not with deliverance at the sea, or with the plagues, or with the first wonder of Aaron’s staff, or even with Moses at the burning bush. Freedom began with a change in the heart.  When Moses’ heart turned to courage, deliverance began. So too it is for us. An inner change of heart is the start of many greater changes in the world around us.

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