Reading yet once again the portion of the Torah of this Shabbat, Shemot, from the book of Exodus, the ancient story became familiar to me than ever before. Today I want to speak of two stries of stones, two stories of deprivation, and two stories where what is done also results in difficulty and misery. One story in generations old the other is just unfolding before us. Each of the stories has its own roots, each having its unique aspects, and still there are similarities to be considered. There are also learnings we can take from the older tale, learning we expect others to adopt when we read them, but do not find them easy to adopt ourselves even when we realize the potential of these teachings, when we experience a similar situation.
paratroopers who had liberated the Western Wall support the Women of the Wall and their struggle.
A new king reigns the land of Egypt and he is worried, very worried. There is a group of people in his country that he believes threaten his ultimate control and therefore he must find a way to subjugate them, deprive them from their rights, and enslave them to the needs of his kingdom without proper pay. Representatives of these people demand, “Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.” To which the Pharaoh responds by saying, “I do not know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” To add insult on injury he demand, “Moses and Aaron, why do you draw the people away from their work? Get back to your labors!” As if that’s not enough the Pharaoh makes things even more difficult and decides that straw will no longer be given to the people for the purpose of making bricks, and he further demand that the daily quota be maintained. Naturally the people of Israel cry out loud, “There is no straw given to your servants, yet they keep saying to us, ‘Make bricks!’” When this does not help they turn on to Moses and Aaron complaining, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
The other story is a modern story, we are living it today, not identical but certainly having some notable similarities. Here in the land of Israel the Reform Movement would like to pray according to its tradition, it wanted to practice tis Judaism in a way common to so many of the world Jewry, and the King, the King does not want to let that happen. He makes promises here and there, and at will withdraws from these commitments and toughens his positions. At least as far as the straw is concerned the State of Israel has made some progress, from no support whatsoever, a small number of our rabbis do receive part of their salaries from government budgets. These numbers are growing but are by no means equal to what is provided to orthodox and haredi rabbis. On the other hand the government persists in its attempt to revoke recognition from non-orthodox conversions, accept non-orthodox marriages and in general attempts to discourage the growth of our Movement in Israel. This is how the struggle over stones of millennia ago becomes a modern struggle over the stones of the Western Wall today, and everything that they stand for and symbolize. A cry that goes heavens high.
Many times during the last few years and frequently these days, I was asked why this struggle over the Kotel is at the center of the Reform Movement thrust for equality in Israel, and why on earth so much effort is dedicated to it. Many are concerned over the violence presented against us there and voice their dislike of the Reform Movement being associated with this face of our fight for our rights. I truly can understand that – it is not different from the anxiety of the People of Israel over the deeds of Moses and Aaron and the way they confronted them as a result of the adverse impact they have experienced as a result of that. The leadership of the Reform Movement today does not have the luxury that Moses and Aaron had when they turned to God demanding, “O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all.” However, we can try and draw hope from the answer they receive, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.”
Really?! Are we expected to draw hope from these words? Well, as I pointed out these stories are not identical but merely similar. The government of Israel is no Pharaoh, and the Land of Egypt is not the State of Israel. Today we are faced with an ideological struggle between a group that has hijacked Judaism to serve its exclusive political needs and that holds the Israeli government by its throat. The conflict over the Kotel is but one corner of our overall struggle with the establishment regarding our rights as individual and as a Movement, in fact all non-orthodox streams in Israel. When we do not get a share of the straw, we are deprived from being able to practice our Judaism in the way and manner we see fit, the authorities should not expect less from us then a good fight. We prefer a civilized one, a debate over violence, negotiations over arm-wrestling, all done with mutual respect and with dignity. However, if this is not possible or interpreted as us being weak, they will have to be confronted by us, a Movement which is strong and determined. How wonderful would it be if we could achieve great accomplishments simply in the name of our principles. As this does not seem possible we must chose effective ways to achieve our goals while preserving the principles and values we hold dear and for which we fight, and yes, “under compulsion”, B’Yad Hazaka.
Reuven Marko, 5 January 2018, 19 Tevet, 5778