April 5th, 2023
Pharoah consulted with three chief advisors on his plan to defeat the Israelites: Balaam, Job and Yitro.
Balaam matched Pharaoh’s cruelty with his own, conceiving of the plan to kill the Israelite baby boys. Job and Yitro, on the other hand, were disgusted by this plan, but both determined that they couldn’t convince Pharaoh to shift course. Job stayed silent, but Yitro, unwilling to be complicit in Pharaoh’s crimes, fled, in protest. The Rabbis suggest that all three were paid back for their consult years later: Balaam and Job were punished (one was killed, the other suffered mightily), and Yitro was rewarded with descendants who sat on the High Court, the Sanhedrin. (Sotah 11a)
There are a few critical lessons for us to learn from this.
- Evil does not penetrate a system at the hands of one bad actor. Every tyrant has legions of advisors, funders, supporters, enablers who make it possible for him to conceive of and enact his designs. History deems them all responsible.
- Some will match the tyrant’s cruelty with our own, some will succumb to the pressure and stay silent (anticipatory obedience), and others will opt out in protest. Each of us must make a choice in the face of tyranny.
- Our actions have real implications—not only in our own lifetime, but also in the future. Our decisions to act or our failure to do so will reverberate for generations to come.
The Exodus story is not just a recording of events that occurred long ago. It is an eternal reminder that God stands on the side of the vulnerable and a promise that redemption is possible, in every generation. It is also a timeless warning of the dangers of unbridled power, and a plea that we resist tyranny, each of us with whatever power we possess.
There’s one remarkable detail in this story that I’m drawn to this year, especially as we consider the roles Balaam, Job and Yitro are said to have played. Twice in our narrative, Pharaoh declares that every baby boy must die, but the girls can live. (See Ex 1:16 and 1:22.) What’s going on here? It’s clear: Pharaoh saw only the men as a threat. He couldn’t fathom that women could amass the power to expose his cruelty and bring down his regime.
But remember, even the most morally courageous of Pharaoh’s three advisors—Yitro—packs his bags and heads out of town, rather than stay and fight.
That’s a striking contrast to the behavior of the women of Exodus chapters 1 and 2: Shifra and Puah, Miriam and Yochevet, Batya. They neither concede to the tyrant, nor do they stay silent. And they don’t skip town either. Instead, each of them rises up in protest against a violent and oppressive regime threatening them and their future. With courage, persistence, and ingenuity, they penetrate and ultimately overturn the power structure, confronting the machinery of death by choosing life, love and holy defiance:
- Shifra and Puah drive a spike through the wheels of injustice, resisting Pharaoh’s orders and allowing Israelite baby boys to flourish.
- Miriam and her mother Yochevet invest in the future, even when no future seems possible.
- Pharaoh’s own daughter, Batya, subverts her father’s decree from within his own house.
What an outstanding irony! The very people Pharaoh dismisses become the cornerstone of the rebellion. It is they who plant the seeds to topple the empire and pave the way to true liberation.
This may, in fact, be the only way that social change happens: when each of us, in our own way, and all of us, together—especially those dismissed, disregarded, marginalized, or ignored by the people in power—use what we have to confound, undermine and ultimately dismantle the systems that oppress, degrade and deny.
That is how we defeat tyranny, then and now.
I am just back from a week in Israel, on a small emergency delegation with the New Israel Fund. It was a spiritual whiplash from euphoria to devastation and back again—feeling the spirit of the nation rising up against injustice, and then seeing with clear eyes the religious fundamentalism, messianic extremism, racism, fundamentalism, and geopolitical entrenchment that stand as obstacles to the just society we dream of.
One image I bring to the seder table this year:
Sunday night, March 26, 2023: After a long day at the Knesset in Jerusalem, I checked into my hotel in Tel Aviv and pulled out my computer to start to work. A few minutes later, at around 11 PM, my brother (who lives in the outskirts of Tel Aviv) called to say that the Prime Minister had just fired the Defense Minister, and people were calling for a mass protest in the street. “You have to go,” he said. “This is history.”
I left the hotel and started to walk, as throngs of people poured into the streets chanting: Get off your balcony… the country is collapsing! (It rhymes in Hebrew: צאו מהמרפסת– המדינה קורסת!.) I arrived to the heart of the protests on Kaplan Street where there were hundreds of thousands of people out at midnight, singing, dancing, drumming and declaring that they would not allow their country to be turned into a dictatorship. I saw young and old, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious and secular, swept up in a spirit of transformation. It felt less like the country was collapsing and more that the country was being reborn! A massive, spontaneous awakening, a beautiful, diverse, and unified voice of protest. All told, 800,000 people took to the streets across the country that night.
Israel is a small nation built on a great dream: a dream born of our history of anguish and agony, of yearning and praying and promising—a dream enshrined in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State and not yet achieved—to build a Jewish nation based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel, a state ensuring complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.
The dream is great, and the challenges are also great. Chief among them: the dream of democracy, now under such serious threat, has never been a reality for millions of Palestinians living under a 55-year occupation. This remains the unresolved moral crisis of the nation.
But/ and… what was clear to me on March 26, and in the days since, is that the people are making a choice: while many will be complicit in the fanatical, messianic dreams of the regime, while some will stay silent, and others will flee the scene altogether, many, many people—hundreds of thousands, will stay and fight. They will use their collective power to fight tyranny, whether the threat stems from external or internal forces. And together, they will lift up a vision of a true democracy: with justice, equality and liberation for all.
And what’s so brilliant and beautiful and surprising about it all is that, like our ancestors in Egypt, the ones collectively planting the seeds of peaceful revolution are precisely those who were underestimated by the power structure. And they are only just getting started.
I wish that was the final word here. But last night, the night before Passover, in the midst of Ramadan, Israeli security forces entered al Aqsa, that sacred tinderbox, to evacuate Muslim worshipers who had barricaded themselves in. The videos are horrific: hundreds were beaten and 400 arrested. Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s far right Minister of National Security, has called for masses of Jews to ascend the Temple Mount during the week of Passover, a flagrant violation of the status quo agreements at the site and a dangerous provocation. Some extremists are already preparing to come with goats and lambs to offer as sacrifices, something the Minister, himself, was arrested for attempting 17 years ago. This, just a few days after the tragic killing of Mohammed al-Asibi, a young Palestinian medical student, by Israeli security forces at the gate to the complex. We are terrifyingly close to a new violent conflagration.
In this season of our collective liberation, it will take all of our voices, our power, our presence to fight for an end to violence and oppression, for our people and for all people.
I pray that we muster the strength and the will—
R’ Sharon Brous
Some resources for you:
The leaders of the protests put together this incredible Haggadah—bring it to your seder for some timely inspiration.
Contribute to the New Israel Fund—to support the people working every day to preserve democracy and civil society.
While I was there, I was invited to speak at the protests in Kfar Saba, a town just outside of Tel Aviv, where 25,000 people have packed into a massive outside courtyard to protest every Saturday night for the past 13 weeks. You can watch my speech here.