sermon · social justice

When did Moses stop being Egyptian?

When did Moses stop being an Egyptian?

When Moses was born, he was decidedly Hebrew. This fact was dangerous. The Hebrews were living under oppressive rule, enslaved and oppressed by hard labour. Fearing the Hebrews’ strength in numbers, the Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile. Staying Hebrew would have meant certain death for Moses.

So, he was raised Egyptian. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the river, where he was picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the central palace. He was given an Egyptian name and raised as if he was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy. 

But, at some point, Moses ceased being an Egyptian. One day, he saw a slavemaster beating a Hebrew. Seeing the Hebrew as his brother, and the Egyptian as his enemy, Moses struck back and beat the slaver. He killed the Egyptian. Moses fled into exile in the Midianite desert. He knew he was no longer Egyptian. 

There are varying accounts of how Moses ceased being Egyptian. In the classic Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt, Miriam and Aaron bump into him in the street, reveal to Moses his history, and persuade him to join the slaves’ revolt. The film is so ubiquitous that many imagine this is the Torah’s version of events.

This version makes for fantastic cinema, but doesn’t quite fit with the narrative presented in Exodus. In our story, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, put themselves forward to care for Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace. Surely his own family, having stayed with him since birth, who look more like him than Pharaoh’s daughter, would have raised him to know his history, even if only secretly. 

As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet astutely notes, the text suggests that Moses held onto both identities. In the same verse where Moses rises up against the slavemaster, he calls both the Egyptians and the Israelites his “brothers.” He goes out to join his brothers the Egyptians in surveying the building works, then beats the slaver in solidarity with his brothers the Hebrews.

Moses could have quite easily continued living as an Egyptian while knowing he was a Hebrew. Many people throughout history have held multiple nationalities without contradiction. The useful question is not when Moses became Hebrew, but when he stopped being an Egyptian. 

Perhaps, as some of our commentators have suggested, the key lies a few verses before. There, it says that Moses grew up. Rabbis of the past have wondered what this growing up could mean. Surely it can’t refer to weaning or early childhood, because he has the strength to hit back against a fully grown adult wielding a whip. It must refer to a deeper maturity: Moses reaches the age where he can question the lies of Egyptian society. He reaches the emotional maturity to put his heart with the oppressed and rebel against injustice.

Moses was always a Hebrew, but he stopped being an Egyptian once he refused to identify with their system. As soon as Moses was willing to rebel against Egypt, he not only lost his identification with his enemy, but he lost the protection of being part of the elite family. He had to flee into exile. The only circumstance in which he could return was to lead the mass exodus of his people, the Hebrews.

It may seem surprising that Egypt and brutal slavery were so entwined that Moses could not remain Egyptian while opposing the evils of its system. How can it be that this country was so repressive that the slightest opposition made him stateless? How can it be that even a member of the elite, raised in the palace of the most powerful man in the land, could be rendered an exile just by standing up against the cruelest possible thing one human can do to another?

Of course, today we live in more enlightened times. We now live in a society where citizenship is awarded as a birthright, not as a reward for good behaviour. We have systems of international law that guard against making people stateless. Our government in Britain would never behave as Pharaoh’s did. 

Or would they? Two weeks ago, the government passed a law through the House of Commons called ‘The Nationalities and Borders Bill.’ According to this new law, anyone who is entitled to claim another nationality can be stripped of British citizenship without warning. 

This builds on the hostile environment initiated by Theresa May, which makes it harder for immigrants to reach Britain and easier to deport them. Similar policies have already been used to send away Carribeans who have lived in Britain their whole lives and to make refugees in this country stateless.

This new law expands these powers. And it affects us. 

How many members of the Jewish community have held onto second passports in case antisemitism becomes destructive again? How many Jews do you know who are also dual nationals with Israel, South Africa, Canada, or a European country from which they were once exiled? 

My dad and brother claimed German citizenship as part of post-Holocaust reparations. Now, this very fact makes them vulnerable to have their British citizenship revoked at a moment’s notice, without them even being informed. 

Indeed, every one of us could be subjected to similar treatment. A study for the New Statesman indicates that 6 million Britons – a tenth of us – could now be deported by Priti Patel. 

This law may not have been intended for us, but it could easily be applied against us. There is plenty of historical precedent. When governments want to issue repressive measures, they begin by attacking foreigners. Anne Frank was a German until the Nazis decided she was a Jew. Moses was Egyptian until the slavers decided he was a Hebrew.

Our community should be deeply concerned by these draconian measures. Whether out of solidarity with those who have already been deported from this country, or for fear that we, too, could fall victim to these new powers, we must be willing to speak up against it.

But there is reason to be hopeful. Earlier this year, when a Home Office van came to remove two asylum seekers from their home in Glasgow, their neighbours fought back. Two hundred local people surrounded the van and refused to move until their friends were freed. The immigration authorities were forced to capitulate and let the refugees free.

Our parashah teaches that the Hebrews could not be contained by the Pharaoh’s repressive measures. “The more they oppressed them, the more they rebelled.” Like our ancestors, we must be willing to do the same. 

The more this government treats foreigners as enemies, we must be willing to accept them as friends. The more this government declares that people do not belong here, we must be willing to assert that they do. The more they say that people are illegal, we must be willing to loudly assert: nobody is.

No one is illegal. Everyone who is here belongs here. You cannot deport our neighbours and friends. You cannot take away our passports.

Shabbat shalom.

South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; Parashat Shmot; Saturday 25th December 2021

judaism · sermon · social justice

A world without walls

There was a time before there were fences and walls. 

At some point in the distant past, recorded only in our folktales, the world used to grow wild and free. Trees and plants sprouted wherever they wanted. Animals moved at their own will. There were no roads, no houses, no cars, and no banks. 

Back then, human beings were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors lived in caves, chased down animals with spears, foraged for berries, and moved wherever the weather was best. 

Then, about 10,000 years ago, something changed. In a place that we now call the Middle East, a group of people realised that they did not just have to take whatever nature allowed them. 

They could change their environment to meet their needs. They could plant, sow, grow, cultivate, reap and nurture crops. They could turn entire fields into places where just one thing was grown, like olive groves, barley fields and orchards. 

This was the beginning of civilisation.

It was also the beginning of war. Armies grew. The spears that had been used to hunt cattle were now used to kill people. 

Fences were put up. At first, they were used to keep animal livestock in. Then, they were used to mark out who owned which fields. Then, they were used to keep people in their place.

The people who had control of the fields needed people to work them. The workers, often vanquished or nomadic people, needed a place to stay and a way to get fed when all the food was fenced in. 

So the workers became indebted to the owners. The landowners would feed and house the workers. The workers would labour over the land to make it profitable. The landowners gained more wealth and more land. The workers became increasingly in debt. 

Sometimes, people were born into slavery, and this would be passed down for generations. Their debt to the landowners could never be repaid. 

The owners, in turn, passed on the land to their children.

This presented a big problem. People could become infinitely indebted, with no hope of their descendants ever paying it off. People could become infinitely wealthy, as they conquered more land and made more people work for them. The owning people would have to use increasingly violent measures to make sure the working people did not rebel against them. 

That was the situation in the ancient world. Debt. Wealth. Slavery. Borders. Violence. Revolutions.

And, according to the 19th Century historian Moses Finley, every revolution had the same demand: cancel all the debts and redistribute all the land. 

When you understand this historical background, this week’s parashah, Behar, makes a lot more sense. This week, we read Leviticus 25. It is a remarkable chapter of the Bible in that, on its own, it comprises an entire sidra of the Torah, and all 50 verses deal with the same subject. This whole chapter is dedicated to how the ancient Israelites could break the cycle of debt, slavery and land acquisition. 

It begins with the shmita. Every seven years, you give the land a break. You cannot overwork it. It is like a shabbat for nature, free from human interference. 

Then you count seven lots of seven, seven shmitas, adding up to forty-nine years. In the fiftieth year, you have a Jubilee. Now all the land must be redistributed again. Noone can accumulate all the fields. It is a complete reset. Everyone goes home. Noone exploits anyone else. 

At this time, all the debts are annulled. Nobody can rack up infinite obligations to others.

There is no ancient version of Carol Vordeman advertising that you can consolidate all your debts into one monthly loan repayment.

This means that even slaves can be set free. The law forbids landowners from charging interest to their slaves. They can’t charge them extra for the food they eat or the place where they sleep. They might be in debt, but they have to have a way of getting out of it. 

Every seven years, slaves have the option to go free. Then, in the Jubilee year, all slaves are redeemed. Nobody can remain in slavery forever.

Repeatedly, Leviticus insists:

 לֹֽא־יִרְדֶּ֥נּֽוּ בְּפֶ֖רֶךְ

Do not grind them down. 

Don’t be ruthless.

Leviticus was written in a time of great inequality, when landowners took up huge amounts of land and charged huge amounts of interest. Workers accrued huge amounts of debt and passed on slavery to their great-grandchildren. Leviticus came to offer an alternative. The system of Jubilees means nobody can become too rich and nobody can become too poor.

This system works because there is someone to defend the poor and resist the rich. There is a force stronger than any spear and higher than any fence. There is a being who will advocate against even the wealthiest landowner and the mightiest army.

That being is God. 

Nobody can be a slave forever, because, ultimately, we all serve God. Nobody can own the land forever because, ultimately, the land belongs to God. In this religious system that our Torah creates, nobody can really claim to be better than anybody else.

God tells us something that no ledger sheet can. Whereas debtors can calculate the value of every loan and landowners can weigh up the worth of every harvest, faith tells us about the things we cannot count. 

You can’t put a value on human life. You can’t put a value on freedom. You can’t put a value on social harmony.

This is why the Torah makes such a special contribution to human history. In a world structured by violence, it tells us that people must be set free. In a world divided by inequality, it tells us that everyone has equal value. It calls on us to relieve all debts and free all slaves. 

Ours is a world of fences and walls. Ours is a world of great debt and great wealth. Ours is a world where some are too poor and some are too rich. 

But Leviticus challenges us to remember a world before this was the case. It instructs us to imagine a world where inequality is no longer the case. 

It teaches us to build a world without fences or walls. Let us heed that call.

Shabbat shalom. 

sermon · story · theology · torah

How can you condone slavery?

Around this time last year, I overheard a conversation.

Two women met each other early in the morning on a frosty hill overlooking the city. One had arrived slightly earlier than the other, draped in a long, white scarf. She was old but full of life in a way that made her impossible to place. The other joined her not long after. Her blue velvet dress and jewellery would have looked gaudy on somebody else, but somehow on her they were elegant. They sat down on a bench, facing downhill.

At first, they sat in silence, watching the sun rise higher in the sky. Then the lady in blue velvet turned to her friend and said: “You know, I believe in slavery.”

Her friend let out an exhausted sigh. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her roll her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “you’ve told me before.”

“Not cruel slavery,” she insisted. “I’d put limits on it. Seven years. Seven years is enough and then the slave goes free. And the masters have to take care of them properly.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I know you do, but I’m old. I’m set in my ways and I can’t change.”

“I’m not asking you to change. I just wish you’d realise that times have moved on. You can’t say things like that anymore.”

“Why not? If I thought it once, why should I be forced to change my mind?”

“Because you’re respected. People care what you have to say. They want you to say loving, hopeful things. If you tell everyone you believe in slavery, people will think that it’s OK.”

“But most of the time I do say nice things. And I’m coming from a good place. I want slaves to be treated well. I want them to have good lives.”

“But you still believe in slavery.”

“Yes, I still believe in slavery.”

“You know,” her friend nudged her, “I want to reinterpret what you’re saying. I want to think you’re speaking in a spiritual sense. I want to hear what you’re saying as that we should all be slaves to God. After all, God is our creator and provides for all our needs, and in turn we do God’s work on earth.”

The old lady laughed. “I like that, I like that a lot,” she chuckled… “But, you know, that’s not what I said.”

“No, it’s not what you said.”

“And you can interpret me any way you like, and I’ll accept what you’ve got to say, but nothing I say can depart from its original meaning.”

“Even now?” Her friend was exasperated. “Centuries after the abolition of slavery? Centuries after my ancestors fled Egypt? Even now, knowing everything you do about human history and human dignity, you can’t change just a bit?”

“Sure, I change, in my own way. But the core of me is still there. Like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”

They sat in silence a while longer. I could feel them both seething. A flock of birds murmured in the winter sky. I felt almost rude for eavesdropping, but couldn’t pull myself away.

This time, it was the woman in velvet’s turn to get frustrated: “You knew I would say this. You knew that if you came here, on this morning, at this time, you would hear me say these words. I believe in slavery. I say them at exactly this time every year. If you don’t want to hear me say it, then why do you even come?”

“Because I love you, Torah!” She threw her arms up in the air.

“I love you too, Kehillah,” Torah whispered back.

At once, I realised that I was not listening to any ordinary conversation between two people but the endless dialogue between the Jews and Torah. Torah, on the one hand, was fixed. She had been inscribed centuries ago and would continue to speak the words she always had. The Jews, on the other hand, had grown with history. Their thoughts had developed as God had revealed to them new insights about how to treat people.

They were locked in dialogue. One would always change and the other would always stay the same. But neither could leave each other. Sure, the Jews could get up and leave Torah at any time. Torah could even abandon the Jews. But if either of them walked away from the relationship, Torah would cease to be Torah and the Jews would cease to be Jews. Through their discussions, they drew out all of God’s contradictions: the contradiction between the past and present, between love and justice, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

I felt myself transfixed by their conversation. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to insist that, of course, slavery was wrong. I wanted to quote everything else back at Torah that she’d ever said to show how that one section in this week’s parashah was completely at odds with the rest of her message. But I realised that, even if I did, Torah would still say the same thing, and I would still have to wrestle with it. We, the Jewish people, would still have to wrestle with it.

Kehillah got ready to leave. Torah gently held her wrist. “You will come back and visit me, won’t you?” she asked. “I know I’m old and sometimes I say offensive things, but I still want to talk with you. You don’t have to do everything I say. Just sit with me and listen. I’m lonely without you.”

Kehillah sat back down. “Of course I will, Torah, I’ll be here every week. I love you and I need you. I’m lonely without you too. If I don’t come here and have these conversations with you, I’ll forget what my purpose is. I’ll forget that I have work on this earth to do. You ground me.”

“Thank you,” said Torah. “I’ll always be here.”

sunrisehampstead

I wrote this sermon for Parashat Mishpatim for the Leo Baeck College newsletter. I will deliver it on Shabbat for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.