Parashat Shemot: Stand Up to the Shepherds.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
January 14, 2012 / 19 Tevet 5772

The entire Book of Genesis sets the scene for this morning’s Torah portion.  It’s all about character development, or better, character creation, just like the creation of the world.  And now, this morning, we are introduced to the title character of this five-part saga we call the Torah.  Finally, we meet the fabled Moses.

Early on, we understand deep down that the strength of Moses’ true character is defined by the intent of his actions.  And so, we are presented with three very important scenes:

The first is a young Moses, about ten verses after he is born – so, let’s say he’s an older teenager – who sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of his Hebrew kinsmen.  Moses, recognizing that no one is stepping in to help the beaten Israelite rushes into the fold and kills the Egyptian.

The second scene takes place the next day.  Now two Israelites are engaged in a fight.  Moses again steps in, questioning their actions.  When they accuse Moses of an arrogant power play, suggesting that he might kill them just as he did the Egyptian, Moses flees the Egyptian authorities for fear that they were out to get him.

The third scene takes place at the end of Moses’ personal exodus, fleeing from the Egyptian authorities, when he arrives in Midian.  There, at the well, Moses witnesses shepherds harassing the women trying to fill the troughs for their father’s flock.  The shepherds kept pushing the women back, driving them away from the well.  But Moses steps in and waters the flock for the women.

Three scenes that take place in the short span of about a week, long before Moses is the leader of the Jewish People.

The late, great Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz understood that these were three initial character defining scenes portraying Moses intervening on behalf of the weak oppressed by the stronger.

Professor Leibowitz asks the question:  why then do we need all three, and why this order?

It’s an inverted dayyenu.  It would not have been enough!  If we had only heard about Moses’ first intervention, standing up for the Israelite beaten by the Egyptian, we might have questioned the selflessness of Moses’ motives, for Moses might have been motivated by his personal sense of solidarity with his people.  And likewise, we might have continued to have our doubts even with the second situation.  Professor Leibowitz suggests that we might have assumed Moses “was revolted by the disgrace of witnessing internal strife among his own folk.”

It is not until we bear witness to Moses’ stalwart intervention at the well in Midian that we come to realize, since both “parties were outsiders” for Moses, that Moses’ “sense of justice and fairplay was exclusively involved” in his decision to intervene.

Just as Moses’ strength of character is defined by his actions, so too the moral fiber of our character is defined by our actions.  By now, many of us are aware of the plight Israel currently faces.  I’m not talking about the threat of her neighbors or terrorism.  I’m talking about the vast chasm between the secularists and the religious observant; I’m talking about the disconnect between the modern orthodox and the fervent ultra-right wingers.

But even with this great divide, there is no doubt, that, thank God, women have always had an important role in the state of Israel.

As AIPAC’s recent Middle East spotlight shared with us:  “In Israeli politics, women have led the way as members of the Knesset, heads of political parties, and ministers in the government. The name Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister and the third female head of government in modern history, is still revered throughout the world.  Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and vice prime minister, currently heads the largest party in the Knesset. And last September, Shelly Yachimovich beat four male competitors to become the leader of the Labor Party, the second woman to hold this position.”

“The accomplishments of Israeli women in science and research have garnered global recognition as well. Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement is that of Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Yonath is the first Israeli woman to win the prize, the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences, and the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.”

Nevertheless, today, in towns like Beit Shemesh, the “charedi-ization,” the fringe ultra-orthodox religious extremism of these places, is stifling.  The shepherds are keeping the women away from the well.  And that well is not just Torah and not just education.  That well is basic human rights and freedom.  An eight year old should not be afraid to walk to her school – an orthodox girls’ yeshiva mind you – because there are men from the charedi community driving around waiting for her, ready to spit on her and call her “tramp” and “whore,” because the school isn’t “orthodox enough.”

Now is the time for us to share our character with the world.  Now is the time for the future generations – our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren – to read our story and understand that we acted as Moses did.  No doubt we’ve stood up for Israelites persecuted by another nation.  We’ve stood up, perhaps, for Israelites persecuted by other Israelites.  But now the shepherds have come and they’re harassing the women.

And this is not only a women’s rights issue.  My father believes, and I agree, that the window of pluralism in Israel is closing, and once it’s closed, it will be shut forever.  If the few transform the country for the many to reflect their system and their beliefs, it will never again be a place for all Jews.  It will never again be the Jewish homeland.  Instead of the Jewish State that Herzl and Ben Gurion envisioned, it will be the state of one Jewish group that Israel’s founding fathers and mothers likely would condemn as anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish.

It is time for us to be Moses; even the man who says he can’t speak so well, he stepped up and stepped in.  So what can we do?

First and foremost we can support Masorti.  Masorti is the Conservative Movement’s presence in Israel.  Masorti not only organizes and coordinates the progressive and more liberal synagogues and worship communities in Israel, but Masorti, specifically, also offers the TALI school system.  TALI is a nationwide network of over 120 Israeli state schools and pre-schools that are committed to providing a pluralistic Jewish education for Israel’s non-observant majority.  They offer something other than the Black Hat Yeshiva or secular school.  Masorti helps the Israelis understand it is not either payos and stoning drivers on Shabbat, or pulled pork barbecues on Shabbat afternoon.

As Rabbi Davis’ letter to our congregation this past Hanukkah reminded us:  when women are told to ride in the back of a public bus and encounter public sidewalks for men only, we know we must intervene.  When women’s roles in military ceremonies are questioned, we know the society calls for a paradigm shift.

And this is what’s even more troubling.  While very much a minority, the ultra-Orthodox political parties wield unseemly power in that same Knesset Tzipi Livni holds office.  Because of the ultra-Orthodox, the Israeli government spends at least $450 million a year in support of Orthodox institutions and programs, with 3,000 Orthodox rabbis on government payrolls.  By contrast, Masorti receives less than $50,000.  There is no doubt that we cannot make up the financial difference, but our contribution, both financial and vocal, can make a significant impact.  You can learn more about how you can support Masorti in Israel by looking at the back of this Shabbat’s Hakol.

But frankly, this is not only about tzedakah and financial contributions.

As we begin this Shabbat telling about one of our people’s darkest chapters, enslaved in Egypt, we also have to remember the bright moments.  We must commit to spreading the positive messages of Israel in the face of these mortifying moments we read about and hear about, and watch on Youtube and on the news.  We must commit to reminding others that there is a better Israel, a purer Israel.  We must commit to reminding people like Ambassador Michael Oren that something must be done to maintain the tangible pluralistic presence that once was the sweetest flavor of Israel.

When our Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, shares her opinion that the treatment of women in Israel reminded her of Iran, you know that we have a major problem on our hands.  Because frankly, these days, I’m less concerned about Israel, God-forbid, getting nuked off the map than I am of an Israel that doesn’t allow USY Pilgrimage and Ramah Seminar groups to visit the Kotel, that requires women to wear a Jewish burka as is already enforced in some neighborhoods.  I am afraid of the Israel that my grandchildren don’t want to spend the year studying abroad in.  I am afraid of the Israel that won’t have diplomatic relations with a female president of the United States.  I am very afraid.

I know that the Masorti movement is not the only answer and to suggest that it is would be simplifying the issues at hand.  But if this is our opportunity to act, to be like Moses, then time is fleeting and we must act.

As the Psalmist wrote (Psalms 137:5-6): If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth—if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Today, I fear the world, even many of Israel’s citizens, are close to forgetting.  It is our hope and our prayer this Shabbat morning that we never forget the age-old dream of Israel and we never let religious extremism erase either that dream or our history.