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Not So Ordinary Voices

26 Tevet 5778
15 January 2018

            In addition to being here to observe Shabbat, we are here to honor the leaders in our community, those who have given of their time and stewardship to make CRZ what it is.  We are here to recognize through ritual our newest board members and officers as well as to thank those who are leaving the board or their positions.  We are here to honor those who volunteer to teach, sing, organize the library or donate their expertise.  Like any institution there is much that is done quietly, and it is our responsibility as clergy to allow you all to know precisely how we become the community we are—that the building does not automatically look nice, that Hebrew classes do not just happen, that the budget does not become fixed without long hours.  We are here today to acknowledge that books are not chosen, discussed and enjoyed as a community without much individual effort and that our children and families do not simply get to learn and revel in the enjoyment of holidays and tzedakkah without great dedication.  And that for six days of the week we can relish in WiFi without burning our data.  One of the beautiful things about belonging to a synagogue, and being a part of that community, is that leadership is confined only to want‑to.  So, thank you.

            Last year when we read this parasha, we were 8 days into a new presidency and 6 chapters into a new pharaoh’s rule—so it is an apt parasha to discuss leadership, not to mention the development of our great leader, Moshe.  And for me, I am not new, but I am in a different place now than I was last year.  I am in the beginning of a new contract, which has allowed me the space to do a little more reflection on what kind of rabbinate fits me best and what is best for us as a community.  And last year at this time, as in other times, but none as pronounced as the beginning parashiot of Exodus last January, I felt the need to make the political parallels in the text explicit.

            Many people enjoyed or were proud that I related the immigration ban that the Trump administration put out to our Israelite ancestors' plight in a foreign land and the mitzvah it inspired, repeated 36 times, to care for the stranger.  Yet, at the same time, many people felt that was going too far, that I was overstepping the limits for what is acceptable for me to say or do as a rabbi or as a representative of Congregation Rodfei Zedek.  Criticisms, rebukes and isolating members seem to have a far greater impact than compliments and thattaboys; a synagogue needs members to survive, and a rabbi needs to be liked in order to last.

            I have done much thinking about whether talking about politics at all is a good idea.  Frankly, I do not think I do it often, at least without allowing for Torah to do the talking; but I can only make the assertions that the Torah allows for, and the Torah is a political document.  I hold all these competing issues in my hand; at the beginning of this week, I felt I wanted to keep political parallels out.  I do not want to be an alarmist, nor do I want to be overly wrapped up in the mundane day-to-day of a 24‑hour news cycle, which, frankly, too many are.  But it would irresponsible not to bring the wisdom I glean from our text this week, or any other time, where we would all be better by knowing, or at least making assumptions about, what the authors of our tradition would say to us today.  I think that is why I am here.

            I came home Thursday and my parents were over.  Ilyssa and I were going out with friends, and we were not going to turn down free babysitting, not to mention Bubbie-and-Poppa time for Raia.  They were at my house when I got home and my father said, “Did you hear what the President said?”  I proudly and rabbinically pumped out my chest and said that no, my head had been in the Tanach all afternoon.  He told me what the President had said, which does not need to be repeated here, and I have to say that I did not give too much thought.  I needed to change, say hi to Raia and leave—I guess I have that luxury.  It was not until late that night as I was showering and mentally writing my Dvar Torah that I really reflected on how profoundly disturbing this statement was to come out of the mouth of someone in power let alone the President of a country made great by immigrants.

            Earlier in the day I had read a good Dvar Torah by friend of mine who was speaking about why we call the plagues, "plagues" as opposed to "miracles"—just like not licking the wine off your finger at the Seder or reciting a full Hallel, we need to realize that our redemption came at the expense of others.  Calling them plagues recognizes Yes, we are grateful, And others had to die.  This was an empathy-filled drash (interpretation), yet there was a simple line that I could not let go of that they had written.  My friend asked is it fair that all these Egyptians needed die simply for the decisions of one man?  If that was true, it would be, of course, a worthy question—but we all know it is not.  The enslavement of the Israelite people was not carried out by one man alone but was systematic, and it required a very specific type of campaign for the hearts and minds of everyday citizens.

            As Jews we may be too quick to invoke the Holocaust, too quick to summon Nazis like the loudest kid at a campfire, but here it is most appropriate.  When I was 18, I went to Israel for the first time but stopped in Poland for 10 days to see the camps as well as the cities and shtetlach where Jewish life had once thrived yet was now all but wiped out.  There were many takeaways from that trip:  it was the first time in my life that this idea I had heard of, anti‑Semitism, was no longer a notion but real and it was tangible.  Perhaps the lasting take‑away I had was going to Auschwitz-Berkenau and the Mejadanek death camp.  The impact was not the ever‑present death in the camps but what existed just outside them:  life.  Auschwitz is a quaint little town, and Mejadanek is a stone’s throw away from a city of nearly half a million people.  Like the Shoah, Pharaoh did not carry out his ideas or final solution in distant municipalities—it was in full view of the people.

            I, like many of you, was taken on the deepest of gut levels by the Nazi march in Charlottesville.  That was not something out of a Philip Roth novel, not something out of an alternative history series; this was real, in living color, in 2017.  How did that happen?  Where had these people been before?  And why or how had they become emboldened now?  Midrash (a Rabbinic explanation based upon Torah) provides our best answer.

            This week we get the beginning of the onslaught of the plagues, and in 8:1 we get the second plague tsfardim/frogs.  Yet in 8:2 it says ha’tsfardea, switching from the plural to the singular—the frog rose up and covered Egypt.  There is a precedent for this; after all just a few verses earlier it said ha-dagah/the fish (singular) died in the Nile, when it clearly many all the fish.  But our most creative rabbi, Akiva, says that indeed it was only one frog and it was a huge monster frog that jumped out and covered all of the land.  Rabbi Elazar counters by saying one frog came out, but led many others.  But a later source conflates the two and says that one huge frog came out of the water and the Egyptians began striking it, but rather than killing this frog each wound simply allowed more frogs to pour out from each gash.

            Yes, this is a funny image, and we can certainly credit our sages for their imagination.  But I am afraid there is nothing funny about the truth of this midrash—a midrash is not simply a fanciful way of explaining the unexplainable but a very real attempt at making sense of the world around us.  It is a heartfelt need to understand the pain, suffering or the mysteries in our lives not simply the ambiguities of the text.

            I am not a rabbi who is looking to make you more religious, nor I am I person–rabbi or civilian–who is interested in converting you to my political orientation.  If you think that is the case, believe me, that is your mind and not mine.  But my position does afford me or requires me to offer my interpretation of Torah—I ask nothing else.  I do not care who you voted for, whether that was Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein.  What I do care is that we are advocates for Torah, for menschlekeit, for leading with the most caring voices of our tradition—and that knows no political party.  Yet I do know that if we stand idly by, if we do not hold our politicians as well as our friends, family and colleagues accountable for their words, we run the risk of allowing the giant frogs to cast a shadow over our country and our sacred traditions.

            I do not care if you are a Democrat or Republican, but your support of a politician or our country is not the same as that of a ball club.  We are never guaranteed a next year, we are not even guaranteed a voice.  So when we do have a voice we need to use it, whether that it is out on the street or in casual conversation.  I am not worried about America becoming a fascist state; but without our engagement, without our voices, we become ordinary Egyptians.  And I assure you that Charlottesville is a stop on the road to Pithom/Ramses and Mejadanek.

           Again, I want to thank each of you for giving me a voice.

Rabbi David Minkus

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