January 17, 2020
Recently, I was sitting at Starbucks, enjoying my coffee. On the table before me was my special Starbucks coffee mug filled with coffee, and copies of some pages of the Talmud that I wanted to study to prepare for my Adult Learning class as well as write some notes and ideas for the weekly Torah commentary in preparation for this very column. I had my laptop and my iPhone — the apparatus of the modern rabbi.
A woman walked up to me with her friend and identified herself as the grandmother of a bat mitzvah student of mine. The bat mitzvah is now a junior in college, but she, and her friend, remembered me from that time and place. They saw everything on the little table and said, “Can you give us any wisdom for today from these books?” “Yes,” I said, “Never give up.” “Oh, that’s just what we needed to hear.” “That’s what I need to hear,” I said. And if I could send a message to Moses in this week’s portion, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), it would be, “Never give up.”
I, along with many of you, have had our shares of setbacks, as had Moses. At the end of this week’s reading, he turns to God and complains: “Why, Adonai, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” Moses didn’t realize it yet, by the man who we honor this weekend has told us, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We will quickly learn that in next week’s Torah portion, God will reassure Moses that he will succeed. Yet, as we know, we too remember what it is to be afraid if we think we are not ready to handle a challenge. Moses will tell God, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?”
This is America, and the month of January. Had Moses and I spent Jan. 20 together we would have heard from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” I could also tweet Moses this teaching from the Talmud: “Rabbi Nahman said: Audacity, even against Heaven, is useful.” Or from Proverbs: A tzadik [righteous person] falls seven times, and rises up again.” Or we could sing with Debbie Friedman, z”l: “Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy!” Or from Chaya Rivka Zwolinski (aka Breslovwoman), modifying a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: “Regardless of where a person has fallen, she should never despair and believe that she cannot cry out to God. In God’s greatness, God has the power to turn everything to good.”
Later, in the book of Numbers, Moses complains to God that the burdens of leading the Jewish people are overwhelming him. Then we learn that Moses had married a Cushite woman, and Rashi tells us that the Cushite woman is Zipporah, who is now imagined as African. Thanks to my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan who taught, “I can see Zipporah as the African American poet Maya Angelou (1928–2014), speaking to Moses, telling him, “Never give up”:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise.(From “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou)
I have been privilege to engage with Holocaust survivors who sang “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the hymn of the Jewish Partisans:
Never say you are walking your final road,
Though leaden skies conceal the days of blue.
The hour that we have longed for will appear,
Our steps will beat out like drums: We are here!Come up Moses, we are here and we will rise.