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Parashat Va’eira 5781

January 15, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’eira
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)Parashat Va’eira describes the first public attempts to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Moses and Aaron make the first pleas for freedom, Pharaoh pushes back, and most of the plagues are unleashed on the Egyptian people in a cycle of escalating consequences for Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness.

Although parashat Va’eira represents the first time the Israelites have had a public leader, a loud and impassioned voice in Pharaoh’s court, arguing for their freedom, it is not actually the beginning of the stirrings of liberation. It is not even the beginning of the fight for liberation. Instead, it represents a final stage of organized Israelite power, the culmination of years of private resistance.

We can see the beginnings of this private resistance in last week’s parasha, Shemot. The representatives of that resistance are the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who resist Pharaoh’s attempts at annihilation in the most private spaces of Israelite life – in the chambers of birthing parents and infants. Whether Shifra and Puah are Hebrew heroines or Egyptian allies, their resistance is the very difference between life and death for countless Hebrew children.

One midrashic interpretation puts the resistance even further back. The Midrash teaches that Israelites became afraid to have more children when Pharaoh threatened their infants. Many couples, including Yocheved and Amram, purposefully avoided further pregnancies. It wasn’t until Miriam encouraged them to fight back against the fear instilled by Pharaoh’s decree that they decided to have another child, Moses (Sotah 12a). When our midrash speaks of the power of Miriam to bring Moses into the world through her speech, it is reflecting a truth we all know. The bravery and wisdom of children is a constant inspiration to adults organizing for justice. So, too, the true need of children to experience a world free of lack, injustice, and cruelty stands as an unrelenting challenge to adults in power.

Private resistance, deep within each Israelite home, became public when the people finally cried out and their cries reached the Divine (Exodus 2:23). No longer would they suffer internally. Once they began to liberate themselves from silence, the path to full liberation was set in motion. Our parasha tracks Moses’ learning to harness the power of the Israelites’ cry, to organize the people and their voices, and to speak truth to the ultimate earthly power standing in their way, Pharaoh.

However, at the beginning of our parasha, Moses has a lot to learn, and his speech fails to encourage the Israelites, who still cannot envision the path out of oppression, crushed as they were by cruel bondage (Exodus 6:9). Although Moses and Aaron eventually become the successful public representatives for the Israelites, it is only the strength of the Israelites’ own efforts to free themselves and their ability to walk on their own feet out of Egypt, that effects their liberation.

This Monday, we will be commemorating the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most successful spokespeople of a liberation movement in human history, a profound thinker, organizer, and orator; it would be impossible to capture the essence of his work in a single d’var Torah. Unlike Moses, the Rev. King was certainly not slow of tongue. And yet, just as with Moses, the Rev. King’s efforts would have come to nothing without the work of a swelling movement of organized private and public resistance, represented not just by adults but by small children.

Our tradition says that 3 million Israelites left Egypt on foot, yet we know only a handful of the names of the righteous resisters, organizers, and spokespeople who effected our liberation from Egypt. Many more of the names of the heroes of the civil rights movement we celebrate this weekend are known to us: Claudette Colvin, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, along with dozens of other organizers, activists, and thinkers. But many of those names are unknown, or not counted among the heroes. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s hold in our memories the unnamed millions of heroes of a movement that changed our country and the world, who the Rev. King was privileged to represent. Although none of us is Moses and none of us is the Rev. King, may we yet live up to the memories and legacies of those known and unknown who walked before us in justice, the midwives of redemption.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.