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"What Do You Stand For? How Far Would You Go?"

01/18/2023 04:17:26 PM

Jan18

Rabbi Steve Folberg

Dear Ones,

This past Sunday, I asked our Confirmation (10th grade) students a rather unusual question. "Is there a righteous cause that is so important to you that you would consider engaging in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to further that cause? Is there any principal or civil right so important to you that you could imagine peacefully protesting, even if it got you briefly arrested, let's say, for trespassing?"

The students – God bless them – took the question seriously. A couple of hands were raised.

“I would do that to support reproductive rights," said one student.

“I would do that to protest the unjust conviction of an innocent person," said another.

So, why were we discussing something this "edgy?"

It was the happy convergence of two significant events that led me to include this provocative question in my lesson plan last Sunday.

First, of course, it was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, and we read some excerpts from King's immortal "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." MLK wrote, in part,

"One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… 
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust…
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers…”

The beautiful coincidence that inspired my lesson plan was that the Torah portion last Shabbat was Shemot, the very first portion in the book of Exodus. In this portion we read of what has been called the first recorded act of civil disobedience in human history. Pharaoh, you will remember, stokes fear and dread of the rapidly growing Israeli population in Egypt. "There are too many of them," he says. "And they're probably disloyal. They might even join with our enemies and fight against us in the event of a war. We need to find a clever way to deal with them." (If any of this ancient story has present day resonance,  it means you are getting the point…)

Thus Pharaoh gives orders to the midwives, two women named Shiphra and Puah. "Let any Israelite baby girls live, but kill the boys." But the text tells us that the midwives disobey Pharaoh because they "revere God." They lie to Pharaoh to cover their tracks: "You know, your Majesty, these Israelite women are not like Egyptian women! They are animals! They give birth before we can even get to them!"

Who were these courageous midwives, willing to endanger themselves in the cause of compassion and justice? The Hebrew is tantalizingly vague, vague enough, in fact, to leave open the possibility that these midwives were not Hebrews themselves, but Egyptians who equally cherish Egyptian and Hebrew infants. And God rewards them for their bravery.

What values and principles and truths do we hold dear enough to put ourselves on the line for them? What truths or causes would motivate us, in the well-known words of the late John Lewis, to make some "good trouble?"

These questions echo across the decades, and indeed, across millennia. May we never stop asking them!

Shabbat Shalom!
 

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784