Channeling the Courage of Exodus’ Women

Long, long ago, before the internet allowed us to broadcast any idea no matter how outlandish far and wide, one used to have to demonstrate the worthiness of ideas before anyone would publish them. Back in the seventies, when we lived in Columbia, Maryland, The Washington Post was my media target.  

I wrote several letters to the Editor of the Post during those years, only a fraction of which appeared in print. I chafed when my letters did not appear, but it was not my call to make.

In March I978, I was very upset about the prospect of neo-Nazis marching through the town of Skokie, Illinois, in full unforms and with Nazi flags unfurled. Skokie had many Holocaust survivors among its population, and I felt the proposed march posed a clear and present danger to their health and well-being.

So, I wrote an essay and asked the post to consider it for their op ed page.  They responded essentially: We are considering your essay, but we need you to clarify x and y ideas and to document x and y statements. I jumped through all their hoops, and to my delight on March 9 my essay appeared in The Post alongside the esteemed op ed contributors of the day.

By contrast today I can write anything I want and send it out over social media without having to prove anything to anyone about its value or credibility.

I write quite a bit and take seriously the need to express myself responsibly and to verify my sources. But many people do not exercise these cautions.

That is one of the big reasons you can read all sorts of outlandish antisemitic tropes and holocaust denials all of which have led to markedly increased antisemitic activity in recent years.

The world wide web is just one of the many things we value and would never want to give up but that has its very dark side.

Take the automobile: In 1899, when cars were just beginning to hit the road, 26 people died in crashes. In the peak year 1972 it was 54,589, and better safety features have lowered that number to a still alarming 42,915. Each year 1.35 million people die in auto accidents around the world.

That is a very hefty price to pay for the convenience of our cars, but very few people would advocate banning motor travel as a result.

The internet and the freedom for irresponsible expression it allows is similar. Very few people suggest putting the genies that have unleashed horrific consequences back in their bottles.

A surge of antisemitism is one of those consequences, and the question is how do we cope?

This week’s Torah portion provides guidance in the examples of the women heroes of the Exodus. Like them, we each must do what we can when we can.

Pharaoh ordered Shifrah and Puah, two midwives, to kill the Hebrew baby boys they delivered. They defied the most powerful man in the world and would not do it. What courage that took!

Pharoah decreed that Hebrew boys drown in the Nile, but Yocheved, Moses’ mother, would not give up her baby.

And can you imagine the risk that Pharoah’s daughter took in saving Moses considering the evil decree of her father, her king and her god, Pharaoh? The quick thinking and courage of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Zipporah, Moses’ wife, also made it possible for our people to survive. What do their examples teach us, whether we are Jews or not? The common denominator and the instructive word for us is COURAGE.

We must have the courage to stand up against evil.  If someone makes an antisemitic remark, don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. Have the courage to tell the person they are wrong.  Arm yourself with facts and figures about the many amazing accomplishment and societal advances attributed to Jew and Israelis.

Yes, support Israel. Israel is our homeland and our insurance against a time when the world might go mad once again. Israel has many flaws, and its present government make up is shocking shameful and scary to me. But there are times I have felt that way about the government of the United States.  That never meant I was renouncing my citizenship or my loyalty to the land of my birth.

It is vital to remember and to be willing to share that if Israel existed in 1935, one third of the world’s Jews and two thirds of the Jews of Europe would not have been dead by 1945.

If you feel moved –as I have often been moved over the years – to criticize this or that policy of the Israeli government, do so. But please, never stand by in silence while others delegitimate the country where more Jews live than any other and which remains a beacon of hope even in the face of incessant terrorist attacks and threats from its enemies to wipe it off the face of the earth.

As much as we need to defend ourselves, we also need to stand up for other minorities when people demean them either by word or deed.

This week we celebrate both the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Each year when we lived in Connecticut, our congregation exchanged pulpits with Bethel AME Church, headed by Dr. Alvan Johnson whom you heard on ZOOM for Sukkot three years ago when I was in the hospital with my hernia operation. Dr. Johnson spoke in our synagogue on Friday night, and I spoke in his church on Sunday morning.  Each year Dr. Johnson’s sermon contained at least one reference to the partnership and mutual respect between Heschel and King, who marched side by side both physically and spiritually.

Heschel’s activism for civil rights and King’s express support of the State of Israel strengthened their bond.

Make no mistake. Some ill winds for Jews are blowing. But if we can channel the courage of the women heroes of the Exodus and look for opportunities to respond constructively, and if we reach out for support from the larger community with eloquence and mutual support, then despite the clouds gathering on the horizon, we shall overcome.

7 thoughts on “Channeling the Courage of Exodus’ Women

  1. I think Heschel died Dec. 23rd … was born – Jan 11th … hmmm ???? No matter … he marched with Dr. King , defying the norm …. a great great man !!! I celebrate his birth !!!!

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  2. BTW – I am saying Kaddish this Sabbath for my Dad, who had the courage to be the FIRST to desegregate his retail store , Kay Jewelers , in downtown Nashville in the late 1950’s !!!! Also, a great man !!! Shabbat Shalom !!!

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  3. Dear Rabbi Fuchs:

    The un-willingness of the passive on-looker — of whom essentially condones [and in so doing ultimately promotes] the act of evility perpetrated upon the innocent — struck a cord with me, Rabbi, particularly after having read Victor E. Frankl, M.D.’s first published literary work of which succeeded his WWII concentration camp discharge,

    “The Austrians [of whom Dr. Frankl] lived among [both returning to and immersing himself within] often perplexed Frankl, by stating that they did not know a thing about the horrors regarding the camps of which he had barely survived …. For Frankl, though, this alibi seemed flimsy …. these people, he felt, had ‘chosen’ not to know.”
    (Frankl, V.; 2019; p. 12)

    “For Frankl, the ‘not-knowing’ of which he encountered in post-war Vienna was regarding the Nazi death camps scattered throughout that short-lived empire, coupled with the obliviousness of Viennese citizens to the fate of their own neighbors (of whom were imprisoned and died in those aforementioned camps) …. The underlying motive for ‘not-knowing,’ Frankl points out, is to escape any sense of responsibility.”
    (Frankl, V.; 2019; p. 12)

    BIBLIOGRAPHY
    Frankl, V. (2019). “Yes To Life”. Beacon Press.

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