Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
What does Torah have to say about inclusiveness? The answer is found early in parashat Bo, when Pharaoh, struggling with the devastation of the plagues, begins to reconsider his obstinacy:
… And Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh: and he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God, but who are they that will go?” And Moses said, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast to the Lord … (Ex. 10:7-10)
The stated purpose of the Exodus (at least at this point in the narrative) is for our ancestors to “hold a feast to the Lord.” While we don’t have a detailed description of how this feast would have functioned, there would have been at least two components: offering sacrifices and sharing a meal at ‘God’s table’ (or perhaps inviting God’s presence to a shared meal at our own table). Sharing a meal is an intimate experience, and the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korbon, literally means “coming closer.” In contemporary terms, God is demanding that Pharaoh let us go so that we can become intimately closer with God.
What takes my breath away about this passage is Moses’ refusal to leave anyone behind. We cannot approach God while we leave others in bondage, oppression or pain. We cannot approach God through special privileges (as in some get to approach while others cannot). When it comes to connecting with God, we are all in this together, regardless of rank, gender or age. Over the last several decades, many of us have learned to expand our definition of inclusiveness beyond gender and age to embrace folks regardless of race, sexual orientation or developmental abilities. For this, I give thanks to God.
None of us will ever truly be free until we all are free. This is the Torah on inclusiveness. Now we must go forth and live it.
Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
Who was to blame for the flood? According to the midrash it was Noah's fault because he failed to protest against the corrupt actions of his generation. The name Noach itself is suggestive, because it can mean "rest," as if to say that Noah rested when he should have taken action.
It seems to me that, like Noah, we live in a time filled with hamas (corruption/violence). Extremism and brutality are on the rise, conflict is intensifying in the Middle East along with a growing refugee crisis, and Palestinians are attacking Israelis in what might become a Third Intefada. Antisemitism is growing in Europe, and here in the States we continue to ignore the racial and economic injustices that make life unbearable for so many of our citizens.
If we rest like Noah, another flood may come - a flood of our own making rather than from God. Perhaps we weren't the cause of all of the world's troubles, but we can sure be part of the solution. Wherever we live, let's speak out to effect change. We have the power to influence our world, and now is not the time to rest.
Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is packed with a wide variety of commandments, including a short passage that commands us to keep honest weights with us for measuring goods when we travel, and another set of honest weights for use at home. We are then told that those who do not use whole and honest weights (literally ‘just weights’) are abhorrent to God. (Deut. 25:13-16) Why do we need separate weights for home and not-at-home? And why is the strongest possible language of condemnation – toevah (abomination) used here? The word toevah itself is a clue, because it is used exclusively to describe relationships. In this case, I think the Torah is suggesting that we use whole and honest weights with each other wherever we are, which is another way of saying that we must deal justly and honestly with each other at all times. The distinction between home and public also reminds us of the importance of integrity – we should not attempt to cheat in either venue. When we cultivate these kinds of consistent and just relationships we, our homes and our communities become more whole. When we do the opposite, everyone suffers – including and perhaps especially ourselves.
As I prepare to leave tomorrow morning to join the NAACP Journey for Justice, this little morsel of Torah really resonates with me. The justice, honesty and love we want for our loved ones at home is critical, and we must use the same measures for establishing justice, honesty and love with all of our neighbors.
Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9
Our parasha begins with the commandment to establish shoftim u'shotrim (judges and officials) throughout the land. At first glance, the context for this seems a bit odd, because it follows directly after an extended section on how to observe and celebrate the Jewish holidays. The Gur Hassidic Torah Commentary, Likutei Yehudah, provides a compelling answer: tzedakah is a necessary part of every holy observance. Tzedakah simultaneously means charity, righteousness and justice. The lesson is clear - service to God cannot be authentic without righteous behavior and the establishment of justice in the land. When we oppress each other, we cut ourselves off from God - and when we see injustice and do nothing we are perpetuating the injustice ourselves.
Next week I will participate in the NAACP Journey for Justice for a day with my daughter, near Columbia South Carolina. The Journey for Justice is a 40-day 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, to raise awareness about and protest against a whole series of racial injustices that persist across our nation. I am humbled by the opportunity to participate, and in this month of self-reflection, I am asking myself the extent to which I have allowed myself not only to be an innocent bystander, but also to have benefited from white privilege.
The march for me was about undoing laws and policies that create or enshrine racial injustice. As the day of my departure approaches, I begin to understand that it must also be about our attitudes and emotions concerning race; about our assumptions and our fears, and also the values we aspire to embrace. Walking for a day is important to me, but by itself, it will never be enough.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras