Civic Service 2010
The beginning of the Book of Exodus is one of the most vibrant and well-known of Torah passages. It is a story that has fascinated children and adults alike and generations have had the story retold in a form that they could relate to. Cecil B. de Mille gave Charlton Heston the power of Moses to part the Red Sea for Hollywood and a generation of children and adults repaid him by making it the fifth highest grossing movie in North America. The Prince of Egypt was Dreamworks first traditionally animated film and another generation made it one of highest growing non-Disney animations. The story of the Exodus from Egypt pays well.
The reason for this is surely the timeless messages that are contained in the story. We love stories that have goodies and baddies, villains, heroes and heroines. We relate to the underdog. We identify with the pure emotions of fear and joy and we are inspired by the quest for freedom.
In a sense, I went for the Hollywood Torah portion today. It is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath on which one would traditionally chant the portion as I did, of the song of the ancient Israelites gaining their freedom. I have to admit that that was slightly disingenuous as on regular Sabbaths, Rabbi Hillel and I read, not chant, and we take time to share different understandings of the text, often translating phrase by phrase so that the meaning of the narrative is clear. So let me get back to normal by adducing just a simple message from this Biblical epic.
As the Israelites left Egypt, the plagues had ended and the last of the firstborn buried, Pharaoh returned to type. He regretted letting the Israelites go and it is recorded in the Torah:
“He made ready his chariot and took his people with him. He took six hundred chosen chariots and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over all of them (Ex 14:6).”
What do we understand by the phrase, “He made ready his chariot..?” Some (e.g. Ibn Ezra) have understood it figuratively: of course the numerous servants actually did the work and Pharaoh just jumped into his prepared chariot. He certainly did not run to his stable and saddle his own horse and harness it to his chariot. He was the King of Egypt!
However, there are those who disagree, understanding this phrase differently and bring other proof texts that use this phrase to support their argument. From this understanding is derived the notion that: “Hate disrupts protocol, as it is stated: “he made ready his chariot.” Hadn’t he plenty of slaves? But hate disrupts protocol. He did it with his own hand. Kings usually stand by, while others prepare their chariot and harness it. Whereas Pharaoh the wicked prepared and harnessed his own chariot. As soon as his courtiers saw what he was doing, they followed suit (Bereishit Rabbah and Mekhilta).”
Pharaoh’s extreme hatred motivated him to disregard the urgent need of his own people to mourn for their dead and rebuild their lives after the devastation of the plagues. Rather, he desired revenge and a slave people to build more monuments to his and his people’s greatness over others.
Humanity needs leaders but it needs leaders to help humanity to live in harmony with one another. The time for a colonial mind-set is gone. One people can not subjugate another. I do not believe that the vast majority want this. But they can be led, just as Pharaoh led his courtiers, into believing a destructive narrative. Humanity is not well served by extreme narratives.
Last night , Carol Brauner, responsible for development at the Leo Baeck Education Centre in Haifa, our partner in Israel, told me of a project that brought children from their school together with children from Jordan and Germany to understand human rights. The children from Israel and Germany shared a narrative of the Holocaust. The children from Jordan could not accept it. The holocaust as a fact of the modern world was not taught and not accepted by the teachers from Jordan, a State that we understand to be moderate. Shocked, one of the teachers from Haifa sought funds from Carol to educate Arab teachers so that a vital narrative is shared.
This is what we are aiming to achieve next week for the tenth year, by welcoming over 2000 year 9 school children to our local Synagogues over a week commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. A simple message learnt from Survivors of the Holocaust. Hatred cannot be allowed to overcome protocol. It serves humanity no purpose.
That is why the leaders of the two main communities of Northern Ireland must reach agreement. That is why there can be no agreement imposed. Those who can hear both narratives can only play a long game. Learning narratives is a long process but it is vital to the sake of humanity and as we understand it as Liberal Jews it is part of our quest to understand God’s will. It sometimes means learning that something we have believed may have been a fact to those living in a certain society in a certain time but it no longer holds good. Liberal Jews understand that with the term ‘Progressive Revelation.’ The true nature of Sacred texts, is the ongoing process of learning and awareness that the values, whilst expressed in a particular narrative, divulge universal values and wisdom.
Hollywood epics provide an excellent medium for introducing a particular story with universal messages. It is our task to insure that message is not lost when the popcorn is finished. I pray that this service has further inspired us to insure that in our local community, we will continue to insure that hatred is not allowed to disrupt protocol; and that it has served to bring us closer to an understanding of our Creator and the will of that Creator for the life of humankind.