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Shemot 5779 - Heroic Activism

12/31/2018 01:22:02 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

This week our world sat shiva for Simcha Rotem, also known as Kazik, one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  For a month, starting on April 19, 1943, less than one thousand Jewish fighters took on the powerful German army and resisted with every ounce in their body.  Kazik’s job was to oversee the final operation that took the remaining fighters from the ghetto and helped them escape through the sewers.  
The director of the classic Holocaust movie, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, chose to end his movie with the words of Rotem.  Rotem described how after the ghetto was liquidated he came back to the ghetto one last time.  That night he walked for hours in the ghetto and saw a place completely empty and devoid of life.  The last words of the film are Rotem saying: “I said to myself: ‘I’m the last Jew.  I’ll wait for morning, and for the Germans.’”
Rotem and the other heroic fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto had no way of knowing at the time of their uprising the tremendous impact of their actions.  On the surface an observer might say that this uprising accomplished little for in the end their fate was a foregone conclusion.  But this act of resistance is truly one of the heroic moments in Jewish history.  The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was obviously not a great military victory, but it was a great spiritual victory.  The gibborim of the ghetto knew that they could not survive, but they still chose how they would die.  The actions of these heroes have inspired us ever since and reminded us that no matter the situation we are in—no matter our fate, we are always in control of our destiny.
The heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto reminded us that an action should not only be judged by its immediate result, but by the symbolism of the action.
Parashat Shemot is the story of activists who acted with great courage and symbolism and were unwilling to allow their bleak situation to control their destiny. Their activism continues to inspire us to be activists ourselves. 

What is an activist?
An activist is someone unafraid to stand up to authority and is willing to speak truth to power.
An activist does not ask what is the popular thing to do but rather, what is the right thing to do.
An activist is someone who gets involved in a dispute where there is an injustice.
By these definitions our portion is filled with activists.
Here are three examples of heroic activism in our portion corresponding to these three definitions of activism.
1) An activist is someone unafraid to stand up to authority:
Our portion tells of the courageous activism of the Hebrew midwives (meyaldot haivriot) Shifrah and Puah.  The Talmud tells us that Shifra and Puah are really, Yocheved and Miriam, or alternatively, Yocheved and Elisheva (Sotah, 11b).  Other commentaries like Abravanel and Shadal argue that they were Egyptian women who were midwives to the Hebrews (see ).
Pharaoh commanded these women to kill the Israelite babies, im ben hu ve-hamiten oto (1:16).  But they feared God and resisted (1:17).
Looking back through the lens of history it is easy to praise these courageous women for their actions.  Indeed, they stood up to Pharaoh and refused to kill these baby boys.  What could be controversial about that? But at the time we can imagine that they faced withering criticism for their activism.
The Torah tells us that after the midwives saved the Hebrew babies, Pharaoh changed his decree, “Vayetzav Pahraoh lekhol amo leimor kol haben hayilod hayeorah tashlichuhu vekhol habit techayun, Pharaoh commanded all of his people saying that any boy that is born should be thrown into the river while every daughter may live” (Shemot, 1:22).
We see that not only were they unable to stop Pharaoh’s decree as a result of their activism but, in fact, the decree became harsher.  Their activism seemed to backfire!  Pharaoh reacted to their activism by making his directions public and universal; he codified the decree so that it was no longer secret and directed to ony two midwives. Pharaoh also enlarged his decree.  Now it did not only affect the Israelite babies, but also Egyptian babies (see Rashi, 1:22).  Previously the decree had only been to kill babies surreptitiously as they were being born, but now it is much harsher—all baby boys were to be thrown into the river (Sotah, 12a).
We can imagine the intense criticism that these midwives faced from the Egyptian and Jewish communities.  “Look how much worse you made things.  If you hadn’t resisted, this would have only affected just a few babies born under your care.  But now everyone is affected by it.  Now many more babies are going to die!  Now it is an official decree that we will never be able to undo.”  We know that these criticisms would be thrown at them, because something similar was said to Moshe and Aaron by the elders of the Israelites.  They said: “Why did you ruin our reputation in the eyes of Pharaoh?” (5:21).  
The activist responds by saying we will not be afraid to say what’s right out of fear of criticism or out of fear of inflaming Pharaoh.  We don’t care about trying to ingratiate ourselves into Pharaoh’s court.
The activist does not judge oneself by the immediate reaction of the news cycle but rather, by the long arc of history.  
I remember our synagogue’s trip to Selma, Alabama.  On this trip we were guided around Selma, by a woman named Joanne who was an activist of the Civil Rights movements.  Joanne took us to the steps of the very church where the march from Selma to Montgomery initially began.  She told us that this African-American church had told Dr. King and the other activists that they would not be permitted to begin their march from the church out of fear that there would be repercussions. They were worried that King’s activism would only make their situation worse.  But then, Joanne told us, the Pastor’s wife turned up the heat for two weeks and the Pastor relented and let the march begin from the church.  In the end, this march turned into one of the most pivotal moments in US history.  In retrospect the activism is always clear, but at the time it is almost never clear.
Back to Shifra and Puah: immediately after Pharaoh’s harsh decree in response to the activism of Shifrah and Puah, the Torah tells us about the birth of Moshe Rabbenu.  The implication is clear: were it not for the tone-deaf activism of Shifrah and Puah, there would be no Moshe.  

2) An activist does not ask what is the popular thing to do but rather, what is the right thing to do.

We see this lesson through the Talmud’s telling of the backstory to the birth of Moshe. 

The beginning narrative of the birth of Moshe simply states, “Vayelekh ish mi-beit Levi, vayikach et bat Levi, a man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter from Levi” (2:1).  The actual biblical text tells us nothing unusual about the marriage of Moshe’s parents.
But for the Talmud the key to this story is the unwritten activism of Moshe’s sister, Miriam.
Says the Talmud, Amram “went” in accordance with the counsel of his daughter Miriam.  Amram was the leader of his generation (gadol hador).  Once Pharaoh decreed that all the boys must be thrown into the river, Amram said what’s the point of all of our efforts.  He stood up and divorced his wife.  The rest of the generation, in true group think manner, followed suit and also divorced their wives.  His daughter said to him: you are worse than Pharaoh.  He only decreed against the boys, while you have made a decree against the boys and the girls.  Pharaoh’s decree is only upon this world, whereas you by denying them the right to be born have made a decree on this world and on the world to come.  Thereupon, Amram arose and remarried his wife.  The rest of the generation then also arose and remarried (Sotah, 12b).
This story cuts to the heart of activism.

The activist is often deeply unpopular and, almost by definition, acts in the face of popular opinion. 

When the rest of the world says, “Let it go. What’s the point?” The activist stands up and makes a point.  Everytime I read this Midrash, I think of the activists who gave their child a bris, even while living in the ghetto; or even recited a blessing over anything in the darkest moments of the Shoah.  The activist doesn’t lose faith in our ability to transform a situation with our individual actions.  The activist never gives up.
The Talmud stresses that Amram is the gadol hador and the rest of the world faithfully follows his actions.  But they were all wrong for doing so.  The activist, in this case, his daughter, is unafraid to ignore public opinion and act on her own and stand up for her core beliefs.  The activist has the chutzpah to tell the gadol hador: “You are worse than Pharaoh!”

3) An activist is someone who gets involved in a dispute where there is an injustice.

I want to tell you a story.  One time a patient visited my wife’s office and in an attempt to make small talk, asked her: So, where do you go to synagogue? She responded: “I go to the one called Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue.” This person responded, “Is that the one with the rabbi who thinks he speaks for all Jews?”   To which she responded, that’s not what he thinks, and then waited for her patient to go home and figure out who he was talking to!

I don’t believe for a second that I speak for all Jews. But I do believe that I have the right—the obligation—to speak out on matters where there is an injustice. I feel this obligation as a Jew, a rabbi, a human being, a father, and a relative of martyrs of the Holocaust. 

Do you know who else was told to keep quiet and to keep his opinions to himself?

Moshe Rabbenu!

In one of the early incidents of Moshe’s life, Moshe went out and saw two Hebrew men fighting with each other. Moshe said to one of them—a wicked person, “Why are you striking your friend” (2:13). The wicked person responds to Moshe: “Mi samkhah le-ish sar ve-shofet aleinu, who appointed you prince and officer above us, who appointed you as an officer and judge above us” (2: 14).
This sentence really speaks to me.
Not to compare myself in any way whatsoever with Moshe, but I also know what it feels like to be told: “Shh!  No one appointed you to speak for the Jewish community.”
The activist doesn’t wait to be elected to a position.  The activist doesn’t wait for a committee’s approval.  The activist feels an imperative from Hashem to raise a voice.  The activist sees something wrong and must speak up
These are three of the principles of activism that laid the groundwork for ending our enslavement in Egypt: 
Act with courage; even if it’s unpopular; and don’t wait to be invited to act. 

The Torah tells us that Moshe and Aharon gathered together all the leaders of the Jewish community – “vayeasfu et kol ziknei benei yisroel” (4:29).  But then when it came time to speak to Pharaoh just two verses later, it says, “bau Moshe ve-Aharon” (5:1).  Only Moshe and Aharon went to speak to Pharaoh, and not the other leaders.  Where did they go?  Rashi tells us that one by one all the other leaders disappeared and slipped away from the group out of fear.  So that when Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh they turned around and there was no one there to stand with them.  However, Rashi also tells us that when it came time to stand at Sinai, the Torah makes a point of saying that these other leaders could not come close to Sinai (5:1).  Because they were afraid to stand up to Pharaoh, they were denied the ability to stand at Sinai.

The life of an activist is often lonely.  But the promised reward is eternal.

Our shul –our spiritual community—must be an activist shul.  We will not only take the safe step.  We will not only take the popular path.  

When we hear of a woman being bullied by other rabbis on account of her sexual identity, like Leah Forster in Brooklyn, we will jump to support her and invite her to our shul. As background, Leah Forster was booked to do a comedy show in a Kosher restaurant in Brooklyn.  The show was canceled after rabbis told the owner of the restaurant that if she performed they would take away their kosher certification on account of the fact that Leah is gay.

What makes me even more sensitive to the Leah Forster situation is that those rabbis used their power from their kashrut certification to enforce enormous power.  

I was sensitized to this situation because of our work with DC Kosher.  DC Kosher represents a threat to the establishment’s approach to kosher certification.  We don’t charge a fee for our services and we have lay involvement.  From the rabbinic establishment’s perspective our worst offense is that there is a woman, our Mahrat, who signs the certification.  

Whenever one trys to break a monopoly, one can expect a backlash, which we have certainly seen from the establishment.  For example, this past week, one of the insitutions we certify was told by the CEO of the DC Federation that DC Kosher’s certification was not good enough for a Federation event.  When I directly challenged the CEO about his policy, he asked me not to share this information with the larger community and that in due time he would look into coming up with a new policy.  I told him that I disagree with that approach and that the entire community should know about the Federation’s exclusionary policy.  

When the activist sees something that is unethical and unfair, the activist must raise a voice!

Fundamentally, we will not let the blacklisting intimidate us as we know that we are filling an enormous communal need.  We view it as a great honor to provide our kashrut certification and as an opportunity to engage with more Jews and help them keep kosher.  And no matter the policy of the Federation, we will continue to do our work in partnership with our holy mashgichim and with gratitude to our community for its enormous support for this project.

We will not be afraid of being isolated and blacklisted.  

The activist doesn’t ask what will make us popular with the establishment, but rather, what is the right thing to do.

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780