Parashat Bo – “Thou Shalt Not Remain Silent”

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, January 18, 2018

Shabbat Shalom 😊.

This Shabbat presents an interesting confluence of two seemingly unconnected things:  our Torah portion, Bo; and the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.  Is there a common thread?

This week’s Torah portion picks up with Moses standing in front of Pharaoh, demanding that he let the Hebrews go, and invoking increasingly severe plagues/punishments to force Pharaoh to comply.  This is hard work to convince Pharaoh, but Moses does not remain silent.

Unenthusiastic about the task to begin with, he enlists his brother Aaron who is a much more polished speaker to join him.   Together, Moses and Aaron do what must be done.  They go before Pharaoh multiple times, they bring on vile suffering, each plague more unpleasant than the rest, but in the end, their efforts succeed, and Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.

Not remaining silent is also a key theme in our remembrances of Dr. Martin Luther King.  We pay tribute to a man who refused to remain silent; who stood up for justice, who paid the ultimate price but who changed our world.

It does not surprise me that Martin Luther King was a minister – a man with a calling, a man who did not remain silent, a man who used his voice to motivate others and together build a better future.   I don’t know much about Dr. King’s seminary training, but presumably he, like rabbinical students, read the works of prophets like Isaiah who railed against their establishment in pursuit of justice.   Clearly, he felt compelled by his faith to use his voice as a tool of change.    Jewish texts teach us “the exposition of Torah is not what is essential, but the action”, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers).  Investing years delving into the intricacies of Jewish texts is a respected endeavor but it is not enough to possess knowledge if you do nothing with it.   As my learning deepens I recognize that study without action is empty.  Dr. King didn’t start out to change the world in one fell swoop, he started step by step, march by march, and others joined him.  And when he was murdered, others took up the work.   Moses’s negotiation with Pharaoh went 10 rounds… and even after we left Egypt, Pharaoh chased after us…and then we wandered in the desert for 40 years…. nothing came easy.

So how do you know when it is time to stand up and use your voice?   For me, my time came last weekend when I confronted with a situation where inaction would make me complicit in my silence.

Michael (my husband) and I were on a Sunday afternoon drive around the outskirts of the Bay Area.  We ended up in an industrial area way up the Bay delta on a deserted road between two outlying cities.  The area doesn’t have much traffic, certainly not on the weekend.   As we were tooling along, we passed a billboard for Berg Injury Lawyers with the happy face of the smiling Mr. Berg smiling down on us.  In addition to the phone number to contact Mr. Berg, someone else had spray-painted the numbers 666 (one of the most widely recognized symbols for the Antichrist or, alternatively, the devil), and the pentacle symbol,  a five pointed star within a circle, known to be used by Satanists, and the words “Fu*K + APD”.   Now I am not sure what APD stands for, perhaps the Antioch Police Department, but that fact that this was all on a billboard with a clearly owned Jewish business felt ominous.

In the outskirts of the Bay Area, it crossed my mind that this was not a place with a thriving Jewish community.   Initially, I was offended, first by what I took to be over anti-Semitic graffiti; secondly, I was scared because I suddenly felt unwelcome; and thirdly, I was angry that for some period of time, countless drivers had passed by this sign and been exposed to the message.

So, I made a U-turn, went back, took a photograph, and on Monday morning I called Berg Lawyers and told them about the sign.  They were very appreciative that I had taken the time to call.  Now, I am not saying that this small action is worthy of the Nobel prize, but intolerance for injustice and bigotry begins with you and me.  It begins with each of us taking small steps and standing up for what is right.

We can see the effects of small steps that lead to big change all around us.  I take it seriously that it is my responsibility to save this planet.   Yes, it is little Jamie from San Ramon, California’s responsibility to be a superhero and to SAVE THE PLANET.

Recently I was listening to National Public Radio and they were interviewing someone from McDonald’s about their new efforts to reduce their waste output.  They have started this initiative because in the words of their spokesperson “their customers care.”  You see, as annoying as my husband may find it when I complain that Starbucks doesn’t recycle their coffee lids, or that they use coffee cups that are lined with a coating that makes them impossible to recycle, I can’t wait for someone else to take the lead.  I have made it a point to ask at every Starbucks I enter to ask, “why don’t you have recycling bins for your coffee lids?”   And you know what, corporate America is listening when we raise our collective voices and we shake our coin purses.  Clearly someone at McDonalds got the message.

When we stand up for what we believe, when we do not remain silent, we become a “dugma ishit,” a personal example.  A personal example of someone who acts on their values, on the things that matter to them.  It may be hard to be the first ones to take a stand, but quoting from Shelley Berkley “Rising about yourself at any given moment and doing something extraordinary for your fellow man, such as speaking out when others are afraid to, stepping up when others don’t, and I think it is important to understand that it is not always easy to do that, but the few that do are the heroes.”

May we not remain silent and may we strive to be heroes, like Moses and Dr. King, leading the way to a brighter future and a changed world.

Shabbat Shalom