The Pharaoh within us

Does the Rabbinate believe that our redemption from Egypt led only some of us to Sinai?
Illustrative. Dura Europos fresco: Moses from river, from c. 244-255 CE. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. Dura Europos fresco: Moses from river, from c. 244-255 CE. (Wikipedia)

And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And she saw the ark among the reeds. When [the maidens] saw that she wished to rescue Moses, they said to her, “Mistress, it is the custom of the world that when a human king makes a decree, though everybody else does not obey it, at least his children and the members of his household obey it; but thou dost transgress thy father’s decree!” Gabriel came and beat them to the ground. (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 12b)

As Passover approaches, we think about the obligation to feel that we, ourselves, were redeemed from Egypt. I would argue, however, that we are not fully redeemed and that in order to create redemption, we need to see all the characters of this paradigmatic Passover story as alive in our society. We are now a free people in our own land and it is incumbent upon us to view our society as Pharaoh and most Egyptians failed to do: with self-reflection.

If Pharaoh were self-reflective, how would he justify sacrificing lives on the altar of his unquestioned authority?

His acts, of course, were undemocratic and idolatrous.

The Rabbinate here in the State of Israel, similarly, is willing to sacrifice the values of our people on the altar of their authority, with decrees that threaten the hearts, souls and bodies of women and men at the Kotel — as well as by codifying their version of Jewish law into narrow, oppressive civil laws that, themselves, bring the people to a “narrow place” (the meaning of the Hebrew root for “Egypt”). We have to acknowledge that we (and yes, we, for we are all complicit) have grown into the likeness of our own anti-hero.

It is certainly a challenge to willfully see, in ourselves, characteristics of our antiheroes. But if we cannot see where the Pharaoh-impulse lives in us, then we cannot know when they are alive in our actions and in our society. But even that, I would argue, is not enough. For even the daughter of Pharaoh could not imagine another kind of society. She could only do her best in the one she knew.

The Israelites, as you know, left Egypt through the parted sea. There is a rabbinic question as to what the walls of the sea looked like. Were they like lattices? Were they like nets? Like barricades or screens? Serach bat Asher, a mostly rabbinic character, who is an Elijah-like figure, described the sea walls as “lighted windows.” Redemption can only come when our souls are like lighted windows, seeing beyond the constructs that would confine us.

For our people, that happened at Sinai, where we established a brit, a covenant with God, to be God’s partners. And that demands chutzpah and vision and imagination.

Women of the Wall fights against idolatrous, demagogic authority. WoW carries the vision of the daughter of Pharaoh, Yocheved, Miriam and the angel Gabriel in refusing to obey unjust laws and in smashing idols, in short: fighting the pharaonic character of ourselves in the form of the Rabbinate, to work toward the redemption of the people of Israel. But more than that we work toward our covenent with God, our brit that demands vision, chutzpah, imagination and the holy engagement of us all. Does the Rabbinate believe that our redemption from Egypt led only some of us to Sinai?

About the Author
Rabbi Susan Silverman is a writer, teacher, activist and Director of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and a Community, that partners with synagogues in the US to gather in support of local foster families.
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