So last week I started teaching a class on the Book of Genesis – to Episcopalians. Over at St. Stephens in Sebastopol. And let me tell you, it's a delight. I have never taught Torah to a group of people so refreshingly untraumatized by Torah. They learned bible in Sunday school or wherever. It was a text to learn, but not one to play with. So the Jewishy work we've been doing, arguing with the characters, arguing with God, imagining backstory – all of this has been a revelation, a liberation for them. They might have trauma about their own religious upbringing, but not about ours. And it has made me feel a burst of excitement about looking at Torah fresh. Not feeling so personally affected and implicated by things in Torah that I don't like.
And with this new lease on life, I opened up to this week's Torah portion so that I could say a few fresh, unsullied words about it here tonight. I opened to Parashat Bo in the Book of Exodus. “Bo,” says this Torah portion, “Come. Come to Pharaoh.” God says to Moshe, “Come to Pharaoh” and that's where we find ourselves, not at the beginning of our campaign for liberation and not at the end of it either, but in the difficult, slogging, disappointing middle, just between hail and locusts.
“Ugh.” I'm sure I groaned aloud. “Ugh.” My desire to meet Torah with beginner's mind was dashed by this difficult story, in which God – our God – hardens Pharaoh's heart instead of simply melting it. And so Pharaoh relents and recants, again and again, so that each time the next plague becomes inevitable: #8 – locusts; #9 – the pitch black; #10 – the death of the firstborn. This is difficult Torah, frightening and theologically troubling.
I remember as a child at seder one year, noticing the plagues for the first time. I noticed them because I suddenly realized we had skipped them. And the next year too. Skipped them. The following year, when I was old enough to feel some ownership of the ritual and daring enough to challenge my grandfather's choices, I just turned to the plague page in our Maxwell House haggadah and started reading. Aunt Anne, my grandfather's sister, leaned over and stopped me. “Oh, we never do the plagues,” she said matter-of-factly. “Our father always skipped them. Too depressing.” Aunt Hattie and Aunt Birdie nodded in agreement. Why, after all, on this night of telling about our enslavement and dehumanization in Egypt, would we want to do anything depressing?
As I got older, I went to many seders at many houses. There, the plagues were never skipped. Instead they were rattled off in the same disinterested way one might render up the names of Santa's reindeer or the Seven Dwarfs. Blood. Frogs. Lice. Comet. Cupid. Sleepy, Dopey. Doc.
So those were my models for responding to plagues or, let's face it, to anything difficult or troubling. You can circumvent them entirely as if they don't exist, skip right over the page because we don't talk about something depressing. Or you can let yourself become inured to them so that they are not painful realities to struggle with, not portals to someone's actual human suffering, but just a list of words to get through.
Old habits die hard. Every morning, I open my New York Times app. And I see the ten plagues of the day. And I decide whether today I will skip the news items that are too troubling, or read them fast in some way that anaesthetizes me instead of troubling me. So that I will still be up to date, able to rattle off the headlines – DACA, taxes, shutdown, shithole, hail, locusts, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy – but I won't be deeply affected.
And I know, I really know, that when I choose one of those options, avoidance or numbness, I am giving up. I am surrendering myself to helplessness.
But this week I have been inspired. Despite the plethora of bad news I have been inspired seeing people modeling another path, another response. Something other than avoidance and numbness. People gathering in community and responding and acting. No denial. No downplaying. Just doing.
Two days ago, 86 rabbis and other Jewish leaders, a number of whom are dear to me, were arrested at the US Capitol protesting on behalf of the Dreamers. They sat on the floor in their talleisim, singing Olam Chesed and getting carted away, one by one, making a strong statement and great video in the process. I watched and smiled with admiration and with recognition. This was the same spot in the Capitol Rotunda where I was arrested 26 years ago with ACTUP, in a moment when I also put aside denial and numbness, got on a plane and acted. I smiled and wished I had been there this week too.
But the opportunity is not lost. We have many opportunities. Starting tomorrow morning, when women and girls and their allies across the country will march, including right here in Santa Rosa. Many of us in this room were at that march last year. Our dear Shira Hadditt made her last public protest there at age 88. We felt the power of our combined impulse.
But since then we've had a numbing year. So maybe it is all the more important to be there tomorrow, to shake the numbness off.
A year ago, after the election, I remember standing in this room and suggesting that we should all begin to specialize. Instead of trying to absorb everything that's going on and reacting and to every bit of it, we instead might choose our areas of expertise and passion. And that we listen for each other's call when we need each other to show up. And I'm wondering if maybe now, a year into this unrelentingness, we are at last being called to show up. I have spent this year thinking and writing and encouraging, and there's a place for that. But now I'm feeling like I just need to show up.
“Come to Pharaoh,” God says in the parashah. “Come to Pharaoh. Right into his space, his psychic space.” Maybe God's message is not, “This time he'll say yes.” Maybe the message is, “It takes a long time to change a heart. Hearts soften and harden. That is the nature of this heart I have created. So be prepared for it to take time. But still you must come. You must show up. It might be a long campaign before Pharaoh is able to relinquish power and privilege. A long campaign before the slavemaster's heart can be transformed. A long campaign, full of marchers and allies, like forces of nature. A campaign in which every frog, not just one puddle of them, must show up.”
And so for me, today, tomorrow, it is time to get off of Facebook and march. And maybe together, eventually, we will march ourselves, like the Children of Israel did, right out of Egypt.
Gratitude to Rachel Timoner, Mike Moskowitz, and the other 84.