There is a passage in Bo, this week’s parsha, where Moses & Aaron are negotiating with Pharaoh for the freedom of the Israelites. There have been already seven plagues against the Egyptians — blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, cattle disease, boils, and hail. Following each curse, Pharaoh suggested he was ready to relent and release the Israelites, only to change his mind yet again. After the hailstorm, Moses and Aaron are told they can go, on one condition. Only the men can be released; women, children, and animals all must remain enslaved. Exodus 10:10-11 says, “But he [Pharaoh] said to them, ‘The Holy One be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly you are bent on mischief. No! You men may go and worship the Holy One, since that is what you want.'”
Pharaoh’s arrogance and skepticism about G-d is manifest in these lines, as Pharaoh assigns the same likelihood of the Holy One being with the Israelites as he does to the likelihood of the children being permitted to go worship as they wish. He clearly does not mean to release the entire population of B’nei Yisrael, anymore than he regards the Israelites’ G-d as being real. It’s even more cynical than that. This particular gambit is meant to ensure the destruction of a people. Were Pharaoh to release only the men, B’nei Yisrael would die out within a generation.
Later in the parsha, Pharaoh offers all the people but not the animals. Yet in an agrarian society, this, too would have spelled annihilation.
Moses and Aaron recognize a bad deal when they see one, and they refuse to leave without the whole of their society.
In many ways, we are in a similar moment now. The Pharaohs that hold us back – racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia – have given us a bit of progress in the hopes we’ll go away and stop asking for more. We have made strides, there’s no doubt: We have, thank G-d, moved well beyond drinking fountains and buses and share many spaces across cultures, genders, and orientations. Women, African-Americans, LGBTQ people, and immigrants take leadership roles in their work lives, have their relationships acknowledged and affirmed, and speak out against injustice. A century ago, we couldn’t have imagined that the Supreme Court would be made up of anything other than old white men. Fifty years ago, it was impossible to predict a woman could direct a major film, run a Fortune 500 corporation, or earn the majority of the popular vote in a presidential election. Even as recently as a generation ago, having an African-American President of the United States would have been unthinkable.
These hard-earned victories are symbols of the slow bend of history’s arc toward justice. Yet that bend is slow indeed. Today, high government officials and private citizens alike use vile language to talk about black and brown people, language that betrays the racism that still roils this country. LGBTQ people are discriminated against in large ways and small, from gay bashing (yes, it still happens) to refusal of service. In the #metoo era, we must reckon with the appalling history and present of men in positions of power pressing their advantage over others in humiliating fashion. And policies continue to be put in place that jeopardize the health, safety, and well-being of many in our country, in favor of the profit and security of a few. We are a long way from the shore, and right now the winds do not seem to favor us.
In many ways, we hold little power. Yet we can engage in small, meaningful actions. Today, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, the entire community at my sons’ school spent the day in learning and action on the theme of social justice. The tefilah was complemented by relevant King quotations and tunes reminiscent of the protest era, children heard from speakers connected to social justice and protest movements, and the entire school spent the afternoon engaged in direct acts of service, preparing gift packets, school supplies, and dinner to be delivered to a family shelter. The boys came home from school and went straight to their tzedakah boxes to make a contribution in Dr. King’s honor. (They chose the NAACP.)
Something else we can do is mind our words. This morning I attended the MLK Day of Learning and Service at Brandeis, sponsored by Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. One of the sessions I attended was on microagressions, those small slights and insults (both intentional and unintentional) that are strong enough to cause offense but subtle enough to be deniable by the speaker. This topic has been much on my mind lately, as I search my conscience for ways in which I have tried to be kind and missed the mark. A recent experience has made me especially introspective about it.
Before I had heard about the H&M monkey controversy, a dear friend posted to her Facebook feed about her astonishment that white parents call their children monkeys. I waded (nah, stomped) into the conversation, saying how much I loved calling my children monkeys and what it meant to me in the context of my family. My friend very patiently suggested I learn more about the history of white people calling black people monkeys. Which I did. Hint: it should be the M word, because when you call a human being an animal and tell them to go back to the jungle and you know that in this case “jungle” means the home continent from which their ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved…it’s not so cute.
It is my privilege as a white person that I didn’t need to know about this history. For me, that word was neutral, even sweet. Yet for my friend, and for others whose people suffered the holocaust of slavery, it is anything but. As I came to understand this, I realized I couldn’t continue to use that word for my children, even though to us it is a loving expression. Ultimately, any word that causes pain to others is not a word I want to use. This led to a beautiful conversation with the boys, in which I told them what I learned and the three of us easily agreed that it simply wasn’t worth it to express our love in that way. I have slipped a couple of times, and they have reminded me. A thirteen-year-old habit will not end without hiccups. Yet I am committed not to continue this microaggression and am grateful to my friend for teaching me.
Just as Moses & Aaron rejected Pharaoh’s offer to allow only some of the Israelites the religious freedom which they all craved, I reject the notion that the only insults that matter are the ones that hurt me, or that the only societal problems I should care about are the ones having to do with me directly. As civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Our Torah teaches us to pursue justice, and so we must continue to reject the partial offer. When it comes to equality, it means nothing if it does not include everybody.