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No monsters, no messiahs

Moses was known for his outbursts of passion, but he didn’t make a difference until he had a plan and stuck to it.
The army of Pharaoh are drowned in the Red Sea in Duomo, by San Gimignano, 1356.
(Wikimedia Commons)
The army of Pharaoh are drowned in the Red Sea in Duomo, by San Gimignano, 1356. (Wikimedia Commons)

As we prepare to leave Egypt later this week, it’s worth noting two things absent from the Exodus story — there are no monsters and no messiahs.

For sure, there are heros and villans, but even Pharoah is not seen as absolutely evil, and Moses is certainly not seen as absolutely good.

No Monsters

The Israelites miraculously cross the Red Sea and are absolutely exultant at their deliverance. Their enemies have been crushed under walls of water and they are safe and free on dry land. So they break into song, chanting, “I will sing unto the Holy One, who is highly exalted; the Holy One has thrown the horse and rider into the sea. The Holy One is my strength and song, The Holy One is my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Holy One is a man of war!” (Ex 15:1-3)

The Israelites continue to sing in that vein — our enemies are wicked and we are greatly beloved of God- for about 15 verses. Praised be God who loves us best!

Of course, the Israelites had been oppressed and murdered by the Egyptians for centuries, so it does make perfect sense that they rejoiced at the destruction of our enemies and imagined the Holy One as a man of war, casting our oppressors into the sea.

After the splitting of the sea, Moses led Israel through the wilderness for three days and found no water. They came to Marah but could not drink of the waters there, for they were too bitter. The people complained there was nothing to drink. So the Holy One showed Moses a tree, which he cast into the waters, making them drinkable. Then the Holy One said: ‘If you pay attention to My voice and do that which is right, and give ear to my commandments and statutes, I will not put on you the disease of the Egyptians; for I am the Holy One that heals you.’ (Ex 15:22-27)

However, the whole Song at the Sea comes from the voice of people; when the Holy One speaks, it is in a very different register.

The people were so bitter from their long experience of slavery that they were literally choking on the waters they needed to live. They can’t even see the deliverance they just experienced; they can only wallow in their own bitterness and hatred of their oppressors, which while legitimate, is not helpful.

Even as they have been liberated, the Israelites are suffering from the disease of the Egyptians — a diseased worldview predicated on greed and exploitation, on power at all costs, on zero-sum thinking that says that gains for one group have to be losses for another. The Israelites were not celebrating the end of slavery per se; they were celebrating the end of their slavery.

The Israelites thought they understood the world — it’s made of winners and losers, and they just don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of that line.

But the Holy One says something different — if you do what is right, I will not put the disease of the Egyptians on you for I am the Holy One that heals you . The Holy One promises to heal them from this diseased obsession with power, from this life of bitterness, to save them from the danger that faces everyone who fights evil — ensuring that in fighting a monster, one does not become a monster.

In the illegal FBI wiretaps of Reverend Martin Luther King, he was recorded again and again talking of his struggle to love Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. Connor was an ardent sympathizer with the Ku Klux Klan who who turned dogs and fire hoses on marchers, yet King would not hate him because King knew this essential first lesson from Exodus — there are no monsters. There are monstrous acts that we are called to resist with all we have, but the voice of God in Exodus calls us to believe that the Holy One is present in every person or in no person. When we demonize our enemies, we inevitably become the demons we fear.

No Messiahs

The Exodus story is focused on deliverance in the here and now, not in the hereafter. And in the here and now, there’s no messiah —  there is only us and the work we do.

Moses is arguably the hero of the story, but he is clearly not the messiah. He began his career as a well-intentioned but rash punk. He acted three times before he encountered the Holy One at the Burning Bush, and each time, he intervened impulsively to save the weak suffering at the hands of the mighty.

  • When Moses first left Pharaoh’s house he saw an Egyptian unjustly beating a Hebrew worker and killed the aggressor.
  • The very next day, he rescued an innocent Hebrew, this time from an wicked Hebrew who was assaulting him.
  • In a third instinctive act of justice, Moses rescued young women who had been chased away from a well by some hooligans.

But while Moses had an instinct for justice, he didn’t have a method . His behavior was powerful and inspiring — it was also impulsive, violent and ultimately inadequate. There was a whole system which allowed Egyptian cops to beat innocent Hebrews at will, but Moses didn’t address that — he simply acted on what he saw.

Moses was a momentary hero, so fixated on the injustice in front of him that he could not see deeper, he could not see what caused the injustice. In contemporary terms, the problem is not simply that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin; the problem is a legal culture that permits, arms, celebrates and honors George Zimmerman. But Moses didn’t yet know that.

But the Holy One taught Moses how to see the structures that caused these seemingly random events. These were the structures that needed to be changed if justice was to be realized. The Holy One taught Moses to take his outrage at the world as it is and use it to build it into the world it needs to be.

The Holy One famously hardens Pharaoh’s heart 10 times, bringing plague after plague after plague, every time Pharaoh rejects the call to let the people go.

God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart 10 times in order to bring the Israelites out of Egypt; God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again and again so that Moses, and all of us who learn from his life, would know that working for change is hard and frustrating and demands awesome persistence and discipline. Moses made a name for himself with his outbursts of passion, but he didn’t make a difference until he had a plan and he stuck to it.

By making Moses march off to Pharaoh again and again and again, the Master of the Universe taught him that the only way for humans to effect any real change in the world is through incredibly difficult work . We all want to believe there will be a messiah who will fix the mess we are in as quickly as Moses killed the Egyptian who was beating on the Hebrew. Maybe in the hereafter, but not in the here and now.

That’s why Moses had to go to the Organizing Academy at Pharaoh’s Palace — it was the first Highlander Folk School, teaching Moses how to make a difference. Moses was not a quick student though — he had to go back and back and back and back and back to take that class 10 times.

It’s not enough to respond to the injustice we see. We have to go to the seat of power and we have go again and again, with power marshaled behind you, in order to make a difference.

This is the other big lesson of Exodus — at least in political terms, there is no messiah. There is only work.

Moses was not a messiah. Dr. King was not a messiah. Obama was not a messiah and neither was Hillary or Bernie. Trump is certainly not the messiah.

There is no messiah except you and you and me and the work we do. The only way the Israelites made it out of Egypt was yes, with leadership, and by joining together and marching. The only way we will get to where we want to be is by joining together and calling and writing and marching and donating and voting.

This is the essential lesson of Exodus — the monsters we fear are us at our worst, and the messiahs we hope for are us at our best, joining together to do the work of liberation.

This teaching was originally given at Beacon Hebrew Alliance on March 22, 2018 and can be seen here: http://bit.ly/2G8GwY6

About the Author
Brent Spodek is rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, New York. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. He previously served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Brent has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, and by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as "a rabbi to watch." Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a masters in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College and their two children, Noa and Abraham.
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