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Coming and Going: An Exodus Story

A Story about Going

This week, we encounter the first hints of movement- the first strainings toward freedom in parashat Bo. Bowed by the inhumanity of their slavery, the Israelites yearn toward freedom- and with God on their side, and Moses at their front guard, Pharaoh may finally be ready to heed the call, of “Let my people go”.

The story of Exodus begins not with a bang or a grand explosion— but rather with the frustrated and cowed voice of Pharoah saying “Be gone!”. It is not an act of mercy, but an act of self-preservation that finally leads Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their servitude, after he and the Egyptians have suffered greatly from the plagues brought upon them God.

The story of our freedom is a story of going forth- of fleeing from the narrow place of slavery, to a great expanse.

The push and pull that is at the heart of our people’s story of slavery and freedom is one that is so core to who we are as a Jewish people.

We are the people of the Exodus— calling to heart and mind that zecher l’tziat Mitzrayim– that reminder of the exodus from Egypt, each and every time we make Kiddush. As a people, we know that our ability to offer blessings- to taste the abundance of the harvest, and the sweetness of the fruit of the vine, is inextricably linked to the fact that We were made to be free.

In our ancient story, we are the enslaved. And so we carry that ancient story with us, in that invisible backpack that we shlep with us from place to place. In truth, the story of redemption and freedom lightens the emotional load, but it always rests just on top of that ancestral trauma printed on our bodies like a birthmark.

A Story about Coming

Like many of you, I have heard many stories with echoes and parallels of this ancient tale over the past week. Stories like that of Ravi Ragbir, Executive Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City,who last week was detained by Department of Homeland Security, and with no information provided to him or his family, forcibly moved from his home in NYC to an immigrant detention facility in Miami, Florida. Or, the story of Jorge Garcia, a father of three from Michigan, deported to Mexico earlier this week. Garcia was brought here when he was 10 by a relative, and at the age of 39, was too old to qualify for DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or “Dream” Act. Mr. Garcia has lived in this country for 29 years, paying taxes, building a life for himself, and pursuing all lawful paths toward full citizenship. He has no criminal record, but does have a job, a wife, and three kids. His wife, Cindy Garcia, describes the experience as “a nightmare come to life”.

Since the current administration announced they would end DACA, more than 800K people, have lost legal protections, work permits, and put their families at risk of separation. Congress now has just days to rise to the challenge of passing what has been called a “Clean Dream Act”.

Perhaps you have heard these stories- or maybe you have not. Maybe your attention was drawn in any number of other worthy directions this week.

Perhaps, like me- you have noticed a bit of compassion fatigue setting in. The combination of the 24/7 news cycle, and the sheer quantity of concerns that we are facing as Americans and as global citizens today, is astounding.

But, like Moses—we’re working under unique circumstances. These are anything but “ordinary times” and so who can blame us when stories that could break your heart cause little more than a sigh, and a dejected shrug.

A Story about Staying

I want to tell you the story about what finally cracked my own hardened heart this week.

Where I described our Torah portion this week as a story of going, this is a story about staying.

On Wednesday morning, I watched as more than 120 Jewish leaders, rabbis and activists sat encircled on the floor of the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, in partnership with the RAC, convened an emergency demonstration of civil resistance to the the deportations happening now daily—urging Congress to pass a “Clean” Dream Act.

There were more than 80 activists, on the floor of the Russell Senate building, with another 40 or more in the upper balcony.

I watched as they sang:

We shall not, we shall not be moved

Like a tree that’s planted by the water

We shall not be moved.

As they sang, another three of the demonstrators are brought to their feet, as Capitol Police handcuffed and arrested them.

The circle gets smaller and tighter, as they continue singing.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh ya dai dai dai dai

We will build this world from love

A young woman in her 20s, wearing a sash that says “Let My People Stay” is brought to her feet, as police lead her away.

The circle gets smaller, tighter, and now they are all linked arm in arm, as onlookers continue to sing with them, and police stand by.

Over the course of about 30 minutes, they sing, they chant, and one by one, and at times- two by two, they are led away in handcuffs.

Ozi v’zimrat Yah vayehi li lishua

There are just two people left, huddled together on the floor of the senate. Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, ED of the Religious Action Center. They sing together, holding each others hands, surrounded by a now full gallery of others singing with them:

Ozi v’zimrat Yah vayehi li lishua.

My strength is my song, and God will be my salvation.

In the moment before they are arrested, Rabbi Pesner raises his fist in solidarity with this groundswell freedom movement, and in that moment, I can’t help but cry. My numbness falls away like the thawing ice, and I am so taken by the gravity of this scene.

How did we get here again?

Why are fathers being separated from their children? Why are rabbis being arrested in the US Capitol for voicing the call for justice?

I believe that those who were there were truly Shlichei Mitzvah: emissaries of our own communal, Jewish obligation to stand up for justice for these “Dreamers”. Those who came to Washington this week were rabbis of all stripes and flavors, community organizers, and Jews who felt they could be nowhere else. Heeding the ancient cry of our Torah portion this week, they went to seek liberation, rather than deportation, these 800K+ individuals.

As we read in Mishkan T’fillah, this story of redemption that happened “once upon a time”, happens all the time, but only if we make it so.

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