I have a teacher that lifts up the Torah text to the class and says, “We don’t live by this book. We live by the commentary to this book.” And he’s right; we don’t make the offerings in Leviticus, we don’t stone people to death, we don’t allow for women to be taken as concubines. But there are underlying concepts and themes that transcend the text, and are very much what we live by today.
One is the idea of “B’tzelem Elohim”, in the image of God. We recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, because we were made in the image of God. The laws of the Holiness Code in Leviticus, the Talmudic expositions on how to loan and collect money, they all come back to this idea. Another idea is present in Bo, this week’s parasha. Moses is coming yet again to Pharaoh, after seven plagues have hit the Egyptian society, and still Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites. Moses has been asking for the people to go and be free to worship God/Adonai. Pharaoh’s court has been worn down by all the plagues, and pleads with Pharaoh to let them all go. “Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, ‘How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship Adonai their God. Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?’” (Ex 10:7) Pharoah brings Aaron and Moses back to his court and asks who exactly will be going out into the desert, thinking that just the men will go, not the women and children. Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th c Spain) says that Pharoah wanted only the leaders to go, that they were the important ones to worship God. Moses responds, “We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and our daughters..” (Ex 10:9) Everyone will go. Of course, Moses knew that none would be returning, so all had to come at that point. But there can be no escaping the inclusiveness of the language. Everyone is required to be there.
Long before there was Sinai, long before there was Talmud, before the rules and regulations were presented to the people, there was this idea – we all have a place in the community to worship God, to take part in the community, to be counted as equals.
Today, we don’t need a Pharaoh to put forth the divisive idea that only the male leadership, is needed to offer praise to God. We have members of our own community that do it, too. And it’s not just that men and women are separated; “separate but equal” didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. The ongoing fight for inclusion at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem brings this into harsh light. Recently, a young woman became a Bat Mitzvah with the help of WoW, proudly and seriously reading her Torah portion, all the while enduring people who were screaming at her. Women are still at the mercy of cruel and vindictive husbands who refuse their wives a Jewish divorce, and the laws of the community are almost powerless to help them. Mounting pressure, communal censure (from outside) the offending husbands’ communities, may finally have an effect and get these women free from their oppressors. In a myriad of ways, we have moved away from inclusion – of women, of LGBTQ, of disabled, of interfaith, of all the people who enter their Jewish lives through different portals.
Moses knew that in order to build a community able to survive outside Egypt, he needed everyone involved, praising God, celebrating, learning, doing, taking the lead and taking part. Sadly, some members of our greater Jewish community have forgotten that. Just as Moses spoke boldly to the Pharoah, we must continue to speak boldly.