Shemot: Outstretched Arms

Often when I am working with my social justice teams at Valley Beth Shalom, I’ll get this question. “Rabbi, I’m only one person, how can I possibly change the world?” Behind this question is a deeper one, not about justice, but about faith. You don’t have to be religious to have faith. Every optimist is faithful in a world that could be better than the one that we live in. You can’t change the world for the better if you are not faithful, because you can’t fight for a better life if you don’t think a better life is possible. Faith in this sense begins with a vision of the future and a more just world can only be had if you add commitment to your faith. The activist’s question is one of faith, not of capacity. We can always find others to work with. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Where does justice begin? We often think it begins with systemic fights over rights and resources. The biblical prophets screamed out to the abyss for social change in the name of God. Their righteous fury poured over the nations of the earth to bring God’s justice into the world. We often think that anything less, is well — less. The prophetic vision of God’s power to redeem is that of a mighty warrior coming from somewhere else and pulling the Israelites out of oppression with a mighty hand and an “outstretched arm.” (eg. Ex. 6:6, Ezek. 20:34) Nearly fifty times in the Tanakh, the writers of the Bible use this language to depict God stretching forth into the world and breaking the power structure that destroys the souls of human beings. Over and over again, God’s fury overflows against injustice: smashing idols, tearing down systems of oppression, and pulling us along from our degraded and broken past and dragging us into a blessed future. But this vision of God’s outstretched arm is where justice can take us; it is justice’s infinite possibility, it is not justice’s origin. Where does justice begin? 

The question of justice, its roots, its manifestations, and its future is at the heart of the second book of the Bible, Exodus. Genesis focuses on the origins of things and people and the family dynamic and personal development of the founders. Genesis sets up God as creator, the original artist who sews into our souls the possibility of love and order. Exodus widens the scope and focuses on the story of a nation and the possibility that for each of us, tomorrow does not have to look like yesterday. If Genesis peers into our past to give us a sense of the present, Exodus does the same to give us the promise of the future — a future steeped in infinite justice, except God is not the first redeemer in Exodus. Justice does not begin with God; it begins with two unnamed women.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, we begin the story of the Exodus in the darkness of an oppressed people, enslaved and forgotten and on the brink of genocidal extinction. The Israelites have been slaves for generations, and now Pharaoh has decreed that every Hebrew boy shall be cast into the Nile, trying to snuff out the male line. (Ex. 1:22). An unnamed Hebrew slave woman (we know to be Yocheved) gives birth to a son. She knows the evil decree, and yet instead of drowning him in the river she nurses the babe for three months and then places the boy in a basket among the reeds, in the hope that he will survive. (Ex. 2:6) Just a few moments later, another unnamed woman, the daughter of Pharaoh, sees the basket, and sends out her handmaiden to fetch it, and when she opens the basket, she sees that it is a boy and names him Moses. (Ex. 2:10)

In the preamble to the Exodus we already see its conclusion. Yocheved, Moses’s mother, looks upon the world with measured despair. She knows that if she would abide by the law, her son would surely die. She resists quietly by hiding him. In faith, she casts him off without knowing the future, but believing in it. She is an optimist. Justice is only possible if you believe, even through the mystery of an unknown and uncertain future, that justice is possible. Faith in justice is resistance against injustice. More powerful still is the daughter of Pharaoh who sees the basket and, knowing the risk, decides to take the baby in her arms. The rabbis see in her a prefiguring of God’s own power to redeem. In the Talmud, they envision this unnamed woman, sending her handmaiden to collect the basket as an opening to a map to the birthplace of justice. The Hebrew for the word “handmaid” is amah, which can mean both “slave girl” and “hand.” The rabbis see both meanings intended by the Torah. When Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket stuck in the reeds she “sent forth her hand” to fetch it. (T.B. Sotah 12b) Here, the daughter of the dictator defied his most murderous decree. Instead of placing the Hebrew boy into the waters, she stretched out her arm and pulled him from the waters.  She, not God, is the first redeemer of an Israel. 

Justice is birthed not in fury, but in love. 

The Torah teaches us that justice begins not when a mysterious angel smashes the political system, but when one woman of conscience reaches into the mud and pulls from it a suffering child. Justice is birthed with small acts of resistance that rise up and reach the highest of heavens. Justice begins not in the outstretched arm of God but in our outstretched arm to help and to heal. The Book of Exodus, the book that teaches the world about redemption, shows that true justice is working together —  one outstretched arm to another — so that each of us can change and be changed. Each of us can know that freedom is possible, and tomorrow does not have to look like yesterday, and in partnership with each other and with God we can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

Shabbat Shalom

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