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Parashat Va’era 5779

January 4, 2019

Hearing more voices in the Passover story
A D’var Totah for Parashat Va’era
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

The story of the enslavement of Jewish people in Egypt is perhaps one of the most powerful stories within the entire Torah. It is the stuff of heroes and villains, slavery and liberation.

It has captured the imagination of those across many faiths and cultural backgrounds, and continues to inspire Passover – perhaps the most observed holiday across all of Judaism.

Yet, there are so many gaps and unanswered questions.

Indeed, while this week’s Parashah, Va’era (And God appeared) engages us in a thrilling narrative of miracles and plagues, there is perhaps one central perspective which is sorely lacking: “Where are the voices of the Israelites and Egyptians – those who were the most affected by this dramatic story of slavery and human suffering?”

Isn’t it interesting that the entire Passover story is told almost exclusively through three main characters: Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh? Where are the thoughts and feelings of the Israelites and Egyptians?

The Torah provides some clues. We see evidence of courage and civil disobedience through the actions of Moses’ mother and sister, Yochevet and Miriam. We are told of the valor and persistence of the Israelite women, who brought food and comfort to their husbands in the fields.

God tells us that the cries of the Israelites extended to the heavens. ”The cry of the Israelites has reached me.” (Exodus 3:9) Yet, the direct voice of the Jewish slave is absent.

As for the feelings of the everyday Egyptian, while some commentators note that not all Egyptians favored Pharaoh’s policies, many lack sympathy, referencing Exodus 1:13 which recounts that “The Egyptians started to make the Israelites do labor designated to break their bodies.”

The great commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270) noted that, “every Egyptian who needed work done had the power to seize Israelite men to do his work.” The Egyptians are referred to as one. Yet, is it ever fair or accurate to refer to an identifiable group as one?

In this week’s Torah portion, we are told that when Moses approached the Israelites with God’s message, “they would not listen to Moses, their souls had been crushed by cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:9). Moses reports back to God, that in spite of his best efforts, “Even the Israelites will not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:12).

Repeatedly in the Torah, stories are told and lessons learned through the experiences and revelations of leaders such as Moses and Aaron, while the remainder of the Israelites are referenced as one. Israelites are later referred to as “stiff necked” (Exodus 32:9), or upon the return of the Israelite spies from Canaan, we are told, “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night.” (Numbers 14:1)

Yet one of the blessings of Torah is its ability to evolve. And while this is the way we have told the story for thousands of years, perhaps it’s time we consider new dimensions. Indeed, within the past two years, throughout the world, we have witnessed an emergence of the individual voice often hidden, ignored, concealed or suppressed.

During last year’s Golden Globe awards, actress Elizabeth Moss declared that it is time for women’s stories to be told. She was not just referring to the courageous and significant rise of the #MeToo movement – but also the fact that our understanding of collective experiences can benefit from the amplification of individuals’ voices. “We no longer live in the gaps between the stories,” she said. “We are the story in print.”

Are we as Jews bonded to traditional accounts of the Passover story? Not necessarily.

There are so many these days who have condensed Passover into a few songs and rituals, focusing more thoroughly on a large festive meal. Many have pushed away from the traditional “Maxwell House” Haggadah, with its emphasis on Hebrew and large tracts of black and white text.

Indeed, there exist today many opportunities to give voice to the many, who within the traditional telling of the Passover story, may have been passed over. There are dozens of wonderful new Haggadot, available in stores or online, which present additional readings, rituals and reflections, which bring many Passover experiences to a personal level:

“How did slavery feel?”

“What was it like to be a father or mother, son or daughter?”

“Were there any joys or just sorrow?”

“How did you keep your temper?”

“Was there any love?”

We may also be inspired to consider what internal conflicts existed within the hearts of every day Egyptians.

Our culture, as we enter 2019, is increasingly focused on the individual. Social media, among our other daily interactions, encourage us to tell our personal stories. This appears to be western society’s portal into the future. Indeed, there is much to learn from the story of Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh – but there are also thousands of others’ stories to either share or imagine.

One of the highlights of my youth, was in 1964, at age eleven, when my father brought me from Montreal to New York for a bonding weekend. I recall one rainy evening standing under an awning on Broadway and 54th Street –– as we quietly watched the flow of people passing by.

Noted my father as he broke the silence – “never look at all human beings the same. Regardless of color, religion, man, woman, adult or child, each goes home each night to a bed, to a family and friend. Each has feelings. Each is to be treated as an individual.”

It behooves us as we reflect upon this week’s Torah portion, to remind ourselves that we and all nations are more than uniform. Each of us is a unique creation of God. Each of us has feelings, hopes and dreams.

May we be encouraged as we review the Torah portion this week, and again at the Passover table, to look beyond the Torah’s direct account of three principle characters, and the description of the Israelites as one.

How can we connect? What can we learn from imagined individual journeys — beyond our featured protagonists? How can we internalize the ancient story of Passover, as we interact with those who are currently enslaved within our midst?

More importantly, how can we take that individual message of freedom, to make this world a bit better each day – one mitzvah, one human being at a time?
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.