Thursday, 02 Feb 2017

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen

“Egypt rejoiced when they went” (Psalms 105:38).


‘Egypt rejoiced when they went.’ [Psalm 105:38.]


Sometimes I am totally lost in my own world.  I am focused on what I am doing, moment by moment – where I am, who I’m with, what I need to buy, how long will it take… It is easy, and necessary, to be in one’s own world.  But this week, however hard I tried, I could not lose myself in my everyday minutiae.  The news from America, for me and many others, is all pervasive.  Therefore, when I read about the penultimate plague in this week’s Torah portion it resonates deeply:


‘And the Eternal One said to Moses: “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt”.’ [Exodus 10:21.]


I feel this darkness.  The darkness of the executive order to ban nationals travelling to America from 7 Muslim countries is, for me, creeping into my every thought and my cozy world here in North London.  Our need for this week’s Torah portion could not be more urgent.  We finally see the Israelites leave the land of Egypt – the land of narrow places (if we are to translate the word mizraim literally).


The Exodus from Egypt is a moment of freedom and celebration for the Israelites.  This is why the verse in Psalm 105, quoted above, is so curious.  Why would the Egyptians rejoice when the Israelites left?  Of course, they would be relieved to see the end to the destructive plagues but one would imagine this was a sense of exhausted relief rather than a cause for celebration.  We could perhaps look to one thinker, Pablo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator, who taught that in situations like these, both the oppressed and the oppressors are caught in their own web.  As Freire writes, ‘Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it – oppressors and oppressed alike.’  In a system of oppression and discrimination no-one wins, everyone loses.  The liberation of the Israelites enables the liberation of the Egyptians and they rejoiced because they saw that things could be different – there was another way. The Exodus story teaches that you do not need to be either an oppressor or oppressed – it is possible for everyone to be free.
It is for this reason, and more, that the Exodus story has emboldened countless others to fight for liberation against these dark forces and times.  As the scholar Michael Walzer states, ‘so common is the Exodus reference in the political history of the West (or, at least, of protest and radical aspiration in the West) that I began to notice when it was missing’ [Exodus and Revolution].  Whilst it feels like we are living in a new era, our foundational text, the Torah, prompts us to remember that oppression, discrimination, and suffering occur in every generation and, more importantly, the possibility of liberation is also constantly present. As Freire says, we must realise that the ‘reality of oppression is not a closed world from which there is no exit but a limiting situation which [we] can transform’.  The political theorist Hannah Arendt taught us that there is, within every moment, even in the darkest times, a moment of choice – a moment filled with potential and creativity and goodness.


These thinkers, and the Exodus story, help me to feel empowered and able to recognise that change and transformation is possible.   Darkness is, after all, just an absence of light.   It is for us to use all of our hearts, souls and might to ensure our own and others’ liberation.  It is for us to stand with our Muslim neighbours and shout loudly that such discriminatory measures are totally unacceptable and wholly divisive.  As our parashah states, regarding the laws of Passover: ‘One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and to the stranger that lives among you.’ [Exodus 12:49].  We are as one in these dark times.  When we fight for the liberation of one people we are fighting for everyone’s liberation.  Now is the time to use our collective outstretched hand and march together for and to a better world.


‘Standing on the parted shores of history,

We still believe what we were taught

Before ever we stood at Sinai:


That wherever we are, it is eternally Egypt

That there is a better place, a Promised Land:

That the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness


That there is no way to get from here to there

Expect by joining hands, marching together.’

[Michael Walzer, ‘Exodus and Revolution’ and quoted in the URJ Mishkan Tefillah]


LBC rabbinic student Robyn Ashworth-Steen


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.