Many of us progressive Jews feel a resonance with the protest poster that read, “They warned me about this in Hebrew school.”
The story of Pharaoh, the story of Amalek, and the tragedies of the twentieth century are frighteningly resonant to much of what has been happening this fall and winter.
It’s our turn now to read that story, not as a metaphor but as a literal inspiration. It’s our turn to rise up, to struggle in the name of freedom, to watch out for our brothers and sisters, to carry all we hold dear to safety.
What I learn from Exodus, and specifically from the story of Miriam during and after Exodus, is that this fight is eternal. It happens over and over in the history of the world. And it happens not only on the scale of empires, but also in our personal lives, our families and communities.
I have a musical project called Girls in Trouble, where I write songs about women in the Torah. When I sat down to write about Miriam, I decided to focus not on her triumphant song at the Sea, though that would have been the obvious choice.
Yes, that is a great moment, rightfully celebrated by Bible-loving feminists of all stripes (hello, my people!). But the problem is, it’s not a full picture of Miriam’s life. In a much less famous story later on, while the Israelites wander in the desert, Miriam is struck with leprosy, exiled by God, and sent to live outside the camp for a week. We never hear from her again until her death.
I wanted to embrace the full range of Miriam’s experiences in my song. Her girlhood, watching her baby brother Moses to keep him safe as he floated down the Nile in a basket of reeds. Her experience of crossing the Sea, which (as the rabbis point out) created liberation for the Israelites, but also death for many Egyptians. And her exile in the desert.
I have heard some people express despair, feeling that their phone calls were worth nothing, since they have not stopped the Senate from confirming the parade of unsuitable nominees for top posts.
But there are no guarantees in the process of leaving Egypt, no one-to-one ratio of action to outcome. And even if every single nominee were to be denied, the work would not end there. And even if we are able to get through this time without too much damage to our democracy, the work will not end there either.
Because as Miriam shows us, the journey does not end with the Exodus. As long as we are alive, we are part of this enormous collaborative piece called “human history.” We must remain vigilant and we must participate. I used to think democracy could run itself as long as I voted in major elections. Like so many other Americans, I now see that this was never true. I will not forget this lesson, and I will try to teach my children and grandchildren their responsibility.
Now it is our turn to step up and demand, “Let my people go.” My people: the innocent Muslims denied entrance into our country after two years of vetting. My people: the Mexican mother deported today. My people: the JCC preschools across the country having to evacuate cribs after bomb threats are called in. Let my people go.
(note: painting at the top by artist Natalia Kadish from this site)