This sermon appears in No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Violence and looters and angry mobs
Of course you saw the footage. US citizens taking to the street. An angry mob. Complete disregard for public property and law enforcement. Looting, stealing, broken glass. Absolute chaos and mayhem. Anarchy! A grotesque affront to American values and all we hold dear as a country. Should have used more force! Need to teach them a lesson. Need to make sure these people are never again allowed to do such a horrible thing.
Can I get an amen?
Right? Some weeks as a rabbi it’s a tough call to figure out what to write about, to choose a topic that feels relevant for the people you’re preaching to. How to pick a single thread from a week of relative public calm?
And then, some weeks, the topic chooses you. There’s an event or something else that captures our national attention so fully, strikes a chord so deeply, that speaking on that is inescapable — the only option. Because how could you not?
So I’m guessing that, with all of that said, what you heard me talking about in my first paragraph, was a response to what happened this past Wednesday. And surely those words apply to the insurrection at the Capitol. But what has me reeling a bit these days, and has been gnawing at me since this past Wednesday, if not before, is that those same words, and phrases, and beliefs, could have been said — have been said — about the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. Said, surely, by many of the same people who stormed the Capitol. And also by many many more.
In fact, it was a mainstream talking point to condemn the “violence and looters and angry mobs” on the streets this summer, thousands of people all across the country — and world — showing up in response to the continued horrific police killings of unarmed Black bodies, asking simply for their lives to matter — expressing deep-seated anger and frustration at the lack of justice in the “criminal justice” system. Throughout his campaign, now President-elect Joe Biden was being pressured heavily, from his right, to stand firm and clear in his denouncements of the “lawlessness” and “riots” that were taking place then.
What's the difference?
What I’ve been thinking about, and what I want to ask us to consider today, after a week of profound whiplash and disbelief, is this: If, like me, you felt sympathetic to, or even supportive of the protests for racial justice that were occuring all summer, but you felt angry, or even repulsed by the “protests” that happened on Wednesday, how come? What’s different?
Two groups of people, showing up, publicly and loudly voicing their opinion for what they believe is right and true. Two groups of people, organized online, showing up in large numbers, marching, waving flags, holding signs with slogans, chanting. Two groups, absolutely convinced of their cause and willing to take to the street and risk everything for what they believe is justice. How can we support one while, in the same breath, we condemn the other?
It can’t be about public property — public property was destroyed and breached by both. It can’t be about broken windows, because surely there were broken windows in both. And it can’t even be about trespassing on government grounds, because from DC to Nashville to Portland, Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at courthouses and statehouses and White House lawns. So what gives? When the same denouncements and condemnations come in response to very different protests from the left and the right, how are we to pick which protests are valid and which protesters aren’t? What gives us the power to decide, or helps us to discern, whose cause is just and whose is treasonous? Whose protests are valid and whose a disgrace?
We can probably — many of us — feel it instinctively. But upon closer examination, who's really to say?
Pharaoh and the midwives
This question was front of mind for me as I opened to the Torah portion this week, and thankfully, as is often the case, I think there’s some real wisdom that our text has to share with us.
This week, we start the book of Shemot, the book of Exodus, which of course contains the exodus story, the story of the Jewish people escaping Pharao’s harsh rule for the Wilderness and the Promised Land. Moses, the Burning Bush, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the singing with joy, you know the deal.
And throughout the story, there are a number of examples of lawlessness, protest or insurrection. I would like to compare two. The first is Pharaoh. The story goes: a new king, a new Pharaoh, rises over the people, one who did not know Joseph. And one who decides that the Israelites are too numerous, too powerful, and so we need to squash them. “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor,” the text says. And when the Israelites continued to increase, “the Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.”
Surely, we read this and feel anger. We are appalled. But at the time, do you not think that Pharaoh felt like what he was doing was right? Do you not think he felt justified in his actions? A protest or insurrection from the standards and norms the previous Pharaoh had established, but one executed from a place of moral clarity on his part. We don’t see any wavering from him on this. He believed in his cause fully.
On the other hand, we see Shifra and Puah. Usually thought to be Egyptian midwives, who are ordered to kill every Israelite boy that they help deliver. Girls are allowed to live, but no boys. For without boys, the Israelites cannot increase and multiply. Cut this population off at its source. What do the midwives do? According to the text: “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.”
Another insurrection, a protest, undermining the orders they received from their nation’s highest authority figure. Unwavering, when Pharaoh confronts them, they come up with a handy excuse — that the Israelite women give birth too fast for them to intervene — and in so doing, sidestep Pharaoh's wrath while continuing their undercover protest. And good thing that they did, because as we know, they spare the life of a little baby who gets sent down the Nile in a basket, gets rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, and grows up to be Moses. We wouldn’t be here today without those midwives, who have become, for some, part of the echelon of our matriarchs. Sara, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Shifrah and Puah.
So again, what’s the difference between Pharaoh and the midwives? Between these two different protests?
The difference is in the heart
I would like to propose that the difference is in the heart. For we know that one of Pharaoh's most defining characteristics is his heart. But not for good reasons. We all remember that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. At first, hardened by himself. And later, by God. In fact, five times Pharaoh hardened his own heart in response to the plagues. It’s only in response to plague six that God intervenes. According to Exodus Rabbah, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish claims: “Since God sent [the opportunity for repentance and doing the right thing] five times to him and [Pharaoh] sent no notice, God then said, ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own…. So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God.’”
So Pharaoh set out on a path of hard heart, and God helped him complete the task. Or, as Maimonides explains: “Because Pharaoh made his choices, one after the other, it became more difficult for him to reverse them. One bad choice led to the next and then to the next until his range of choices narrowed and he could no longer turn back.” Pharaoh’s hard heart had backed him into a corner. He had dug himself into a hole.
This idea is picked up by the modern psychologist Erich Fromm, who wrote that the Torah’s description presents “one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical and spiritual destruction.”
Is this not what we saw on Wednesday? The unavoidable end — of this Presidency, of White Supremacy, of an extractive economic system doomed from the start, and of a toxic excuse for dominant religion, practiced by far too many — resulting in a sort of physical and spiritual self-destruction? Did we not see on display, on full display, the hardened hearts of thousands of people at the Capitol? The hardened heart of the angry and sadistic underbelly of this country?
How else could you explain the Nazi shirts and Confederate flags? How else could you explain the bizarre mix of hollow hurt and pain with the poisonous confidence of whiteness? Each, Pharaohs of their own domains, following the Pharaoh who has ruled this country for the last four years. What we witnessed last week was cold, hard, brittle heart. What we saw on Wednesday was life-taking, wall-building, immigrant-excluding, abundance narrowing. It was fear-driven, and it was about negating life.
This, as opposed to the soft-hearted proliferation of the midwives, who refused to kill. Who refused to take life. The deep maternal wisdom of the midwives, who were on the streets this summer. Not asking that we revert back to some fabricated past that was sold as great, like a slimy bill of goods, to people who were actually suffering from it the whole time. Instead, committed to birthing a new future.
Midwives, who were unwilling to accept that some people don’t belong, that some baby’s shouldn’t be born, that some lives don’t matter. Midwives who embrace diversity. Egyptian midwives caring for the destitute and othered Israelite babies, showing care across border, love across boundary, compassion across creed, caste, color, and immigration status. Solidarity across tribe. Egyptian midwives, raised in a land that doesn’t allow for love, in a land of hardened heart, who were somehow able to muster the courage and kindness to seed new life, to usher in new generations. Midwives, like the Black women who organized and strategized and motivated and inspired and turned out to win the Senate in Georgia and the election all across this country, who refuse to do anything less than fiercely and steadfastly and wholeheartedly ensure that new life and new possibility continue to be born.
What was so great about the midwives? In part, the commentaries say that they took this action into their own hands right from the start. They didn’t wait until the 10th plague to finally stand up to Pharaoh, after it was already too late. They didn’t wait until the chariots were crashing and drowning in the water to jump ship. Long before the first official plague was ever even decreed, they were already doing the right thing, protesting from a place of supple, throbbing heart, for life itself, risking it all for the sake of possibility.
I learned a Talmudic saying from a colleague who wrote on this Torah portion last year, that “one sin, one bad choice, is like a spider’s thread.” It is easy to break one thread. But “many sins, many bad choices, are like a rope.” Bad choices repeated become so strong that the rope they make is hard to cut.
But the same can be said of a good deed, he teaches. One good deed is like a spider’s thread and many good deeds are like a rope.
Just as Pharaoh set his own path of hardened heart from the beginning, leading to physical and spiritual self-destruction, so too the midwives set their own path of softened, open heart from the beginning, leading to physical and spiritual collective liberation and joy.
Where our redemption lies
Yes, on the surface, protest, revolt or insurrection might share some characteristics. Looking quickly, you may not be able to tell the difference, or feel justified in deciding which protest is right and which is wrong. But dig a little deeper and get a sense of the heart of that protest, and you will quickly and unequivocally know on which side of history it lies. Is it a protest filled with curse? Or with blessing? A protest of prayer and possibility, or of privilege and arrogance? Are the hearts hard or soft? Supple or brittle? Is it demanding more life, or ensuring less?
Yes, in the days since Wednesday, I’m sure we have all heard comparisons and both-sides-isms between what happened at the Capitol and what happened over the summer. We have been told, and will continue to be told, that neither side is right. Both are too extreme. That the truth is somewhere in the middle. That we should strive for a moderate center. But whatever the "moderate center" of fascism and Nazism is, is surely far too regressive and harmful for me. And surely, throughout history, from the Civil Rights movement, the anti-War movement, the Women's Rights movement, the LGBTQ movement, and more, hard hearted nay-sayers have claimed that these movements were too disruptive, too petty, anti-American. That these protests were unpatriotic and detrimental to the collective fabric of our Democracy. To tame them down. To wait your turn.
But if we take anything from this week, and anything from our history, it’s that soft-hearted, life-affirming, abundance-seeking, blessing-giving protest and insurrection is the only path towards liberation. The Talmud is clear: “It was the reward of the righteous women of the generation of [the Exodus] that caused Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.” This is where our redemption lies, as well. We live in a hard hearted country, a nation built on genocide and slavery and pillaging of wealth by a ruling elite. And so any challenge to that will be vociferously opposed by those for whom that is the American dream.
But the other truth of this country is that there have always been the midwives. That the midwives are why we are here. And why there is any hope at all for us and where we’re going. Our task is to listen to the midwives, to honor them and lift them up and follow their lead. Because their path, of softened heart and the birthright of possibility, is the one that will lead us to collective liberation. That is the true American Dream, the human dream, and those are our leaders. I look forward to walking that path together with you all.
Rabbi Nate DeGroot is a National Organizer with The Shalom Center. The Shalom Center equips activists and spiritual leaders with awareness and skills needed to lead in shaping a transformed and transformative Judaism that can help create a world of peace, justice, healing for the earth, and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.