Sermon Nov 8 2014

Trump Trilogy Part 3 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon – 28th January 2017 – Shabbat Va-aeira

It’s turned into a trilogy: two weeks ago we had the parallel words of Obama’s farewell speech alongside the patriarch Jacob’s dying words. Last week as a new Pharaoh came to the throne in ancient Egypt we saw Trump’s inauguration across the pond. Here we are today with God telling Moses it’s all about putting the Israelites first. Israelites first

Ex 6:5

וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי

5 I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage and I have remembered my covenant. 

We know how powerful a message can be when people are so angry at the perception of their lot that they want to rage against the regime. In fact the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher described Trump’s inauguration speech as being “for the angry, the frustrated, the American voters who turned out…to shake their fist at the status quo and take a chance on a man who was unlike any presidential politician before him.”

So when Moses attempted to be the saviour of the Israelites to help them rage against the system why are we told…

Ex 6:9

; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

9 And Moses spoke so to the children of Israel; but they would not listen to Moses their spirit crushed by cruel bondage. {P}
Why did they not listen to Moses? Kotzer ruach – their spirits were crushed. Had the status quo left them so exhausted and weary that they could not even conceive of potential change? Or perhaps as our biblical commentators suggest, that the Israelites knew it would require hard work and it would not happen quickly or easily.  Moses moans that if the Israelites don’t listen to him how on earth could he expect Pharaoh to.

Yet the commentary reminds us that leaders derive their power and legitimacy from the willingness of people to listen to them. It’s a frightening theory to put forward when we are in a time when opinions that I thought would never be mainstream opinion again are being spoken in the 21st century by the most senior figure in the so-called free world: the reintroduction or at least legalising of torture and racist, discriminatory border controls. They can’t be written off as lunacy when people are listening and supporting, prepared to suspend their own belief in the sanctity of life to prioritise their desire for a feeling of security even when that vilifies for no good reason great swathes of the globe.

But why won’t the Israelites listen? Perhaps it is because Moses represents everything that makes him different from them. He grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, escaped to the freedom of Midian and speaks of a God that the Israelites had long since given up on being the source of their redemption.

But what about when a leader comes claiming to represent you, claiming to share your fears, your frustrations and claims solutions for a better future? All you have to do is believe that they are putting your needs first without worrying about the repercussions on anyone around you, wanting your situation to be improved at the expense of everyone else.

Does Theresa May share that popularity winning philosophy when she said: “This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. But nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our own interests.”

So what happens when you have more than one leader saying, we will all put our own needs first? It turns into a ridiculous circus, with each trying to prove themselves the savviest, the boldest the one who utters truth. If Moses and Pharaoh were having the initial “let my people go speech” today they would have been standing at podiums, the assembled world press in front of them with every moment being recorded, photographed and broken down into 140 character snapshots.

  • amazement as Moses magically turns his rod into a serpent
  • Pharaoh not to be out done as he proves he can do it too
  • cheap shot as river turns red. Pharaoh reassures Egyptians it’s nothing his sorcerers aren’t able to do themselves.

This press conference was not going to separate them. Neither one were going to commit a clanger to make themselves look foolish. We might now call them plagues, see them with a fairy-tale mystique but the cordial conversations, the initial postulating soon began to be waging war. When does friendly rivalry become warning shots and how long does it take before the “I’m here for the good of my people” rhetoric start costing lives? How quickly does it escalate and how long does it last?

It’s been exactly a week today and I’m already wondering if by Pesach we will be taking a drop of wine out of our cups as we see the plagues as the stepping-stones to something more sinister:

  • walls along borders
  • restricting women’s choice in reproduction
  • persecution of Muslims
  • the torture of alleged terror suspects.

It hasn’t got the same ring as the dam, sefardeah, kinim but whilst you are living through it, even if you are only watching the ill effects harming others, I suspect it might be painful to see the effects of “our needs first” on those that suffer the consequences.

God’s plagues put the Israelites first, our need for freedom was so great that tactics were employed that stopped thinking about how the repercussions might affect other nations and for how long. God was so caught up in needing the Egyptians to acknowledge His greatness while saving the Israelites that we know how quickly the story moves from posturing to negotiations to threatening actions. Can we even ask for how long the tremors were or potentially are felt? Were the Israelites needs great? Absolutely, but whatever the crisis I’m just not convinced it’s ok to say one person’s needs get met without considering the impact on others because at that point war is waged rather than solutions found.

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary , Rachel Havrelock names the final sections of this portion (Exodus 7:8–9:35) “Seven Signs and Marvels.” She explains, “Words like ‘signs’ (otot), ‘marvels’ (moftim), and ‘wonders’ (nifle’ot) describe the events that devastate the land and attack the routine affairs of ordinary Egyptians” 

Is one person’s redemption always another’s downfall? Who gets caught up in the fight to put one people’s needs above another? Is it ever possible to bring about huge cultural change, to change the lot of those raging against the status quo without simply creating a different underclass or a scapegoated population?

I am troubled by the “ruthlessness of a God who seems to need to triumph over a mortal who was unlucky enough to be born into the Egyptian dynastic line.” Yet I am also troubled by the fact that this is how we tell our story. Our freedom at the expense of everyone else is seen as the foundation stone of our Jewish lives as we know it.

Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl writes in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We may be witnessing world leaders creating a new narrative but we get to form our own opinions on it. Is it good for Britain? Is it good for the Jews? Unless it’s good for society at large we should be girding our loins and preparing for war because when it’s good for one person that usually means it isn’t good for someone else and they are unlikely to sit back and watch.

I hope in the weeks ahead I am able to stop drawing these parallels because (I don’t want to be FRS’s Washington correspondent!) and none of us want to witness the escalating plagues in today’s society and although we hope to be singing with great joy the song of the sea in a couple of weeks, we are reminded of God’s tears as He chastises – how can you sing while my creatures are drowning?

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