By Cantor Sheri Allen
This week we begin a whole new chapter in our family saga. To be more accurate, we begin Book Two in our five-book series, and this one is a real page-turner. Or should I say parchment roller. There is major change in the wind, foreshadowed by the ominous pronouncement, Exodus 1:8: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The text seems to imply that Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph’s family, who had lived and prospered in Egypt for generations. And it’s just not that he didn’t know them. This Pharaoh didn’t want to know them.
There was no room for anyone else at the center of Pharaoh’s universe, and no one who could stop him from destroying anyone whom he perceived as getting in his way — like the continually fruitful and ever-multiplying Israelites. So he enslaved them, and that enslavement lasted for the next 400 years.
And as if slavery wasn’t enough, he ordered that, upon their birth, all Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the river Nile. Fortunately for Moses, his family defied that decree and sent him down the Nile in a basket instead, where he was intercepted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as Egyptian royalty. But when he kills an Egyptian taskmaster who was about to beat a Hebrew slave, he runs off to Midian, meets his future wife Tzipporah and her family; takes up a new profession, shepherd; and makes God’s acquaintance via a burning bush.
God then gives Moses a job promotion shepherding a different kind of flock — the Hebrew nation — and tasks him with the responsibility of leading the people out of slavery to freedom. And the rest, they say, is our history.
Moses is less than enthusiastic when it came to accepting his new position. He doesn’t accept right away. But despite all of Moses’ questions and doubts, God will simply not take “no” for an answer. And with the assurance that Aaron will be his voice, Moses, undoubtedly with trepidation, tells his wife to start packing. They’re heading back to Egypt.
Although we can’t possibly imagine what it would be like to take on the enormity of Moses’ task, I’m sure most, if not all, of us know what it’s like to jump into something that we feel clearly unprepared for. As it turned out, Moses was the right person for the job. Although not perfect, he displayed the most important skills needed to be a truly successful leader: humility, respect, self-awareness, the ability to truly listen, the courage to take responsibility for one’s mistakes as well as one’s successes and the desire to learn from others.
And cultivating these leadership skills is no easy task. I’ve come to learn that one of my most sacred tasks on the bimah is to not just raise my voice in prayer, but to raise my voice in protest, to call attention to things that I believe should truly matter to all of us, whether it’s issues of equality, human rights, civility, dignity or social justice. As Jews, we are not only supposed to be a light to the nations; we are also supposed to shine that light on the indignities, inhumanity and unrighteousness that we witness in the world. We come to synagogue to be rejuvenated, inspired and enlightened, but I believe that there are times when we should also leave feeling uncomfortable and motivated to take action — because our tradition teaches us that standing idly by is not acceptable.
As Rabbi Rachel Barenblat so beautifully expresses, “All of us are tasked with perfecting our broken world — all of us are tasked with speaking truth to power, fighting for freedom, helping the vulnerable push through the narrow place of constriction into liberation. All of us are charged with cultivating the sense of wonder that will let us hear God’s voice issuing forth from the fire, and the sense of obligation that binds us to the work we’re here to do…. When the work of change and transformation call, don’t look around to see who else might pick up the slack. Say ‘Here I am. Send me.’”
I believe that we need to be forthright and open about what we stand for as Jewish institutions and congregations. We need to define what it means to be “welcoming of all,” and then to practice what that looks like. Our task is tikkun olam — repair of the world. But how can we repair the world if we don’t acknowledge that it is broken? And there is much that has been broken over the last few years. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can start right here, in our spiritual homes, and strive to become a voice for justice and fairness, for inclusivity and compassion.
Cantor Sheri Allen is the co-founder of Makom Shelanu, a new inclusive, affirming congregation in Fort Worth.