Rebellion and Liberation (Parashat Shemot)

The author argues that the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt represents the stories of all people who have faced oppression. He writes that we should take our cues from the Israelites, who rebelled, first against Pharaoh and then against Moses and Aaron. From this we learn to rebel against forces of oppression in our own time.

December 25, 2010

By Rabbi James Greene

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Parashat Shemot
Rebellion and Liberation
by Rabbi James Greene on Saturday December 25, 2010
18 Tevet 5771
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Parshat Shemot has always been one of my favorite portions in the Torah. Although I was a bit young to really appreciate Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses in “The 10 Commandments,” (I do remember believing, however, that Moses did come down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in one hand and a machine gun in the other!) I can still recall seeing the movie on TV as a child and my parents reminding me that this was our story. My grandfather (alav hashalom) even once threatened to make us watch the entire film during a Passover seder!

This story of the Israelite people is the story of all peoples who have faced oppression. Although it remains the core foundational story of the Jewish people, the translesbigay community can and should see itself within this core myth and use the lessons therein as one path forward. The rebellion of the Israelites against its leadership and Moses’ liberation from his Egyptian upbringing makes this a compelling argument. Rebecca Alpert, writing in The Queer Bible Commentary, makes a convincing case for this vision by noting that, “…we look forward to a time when with whom we choose to have sex and to live and to love and the ways in which we choose to express our gender identity will no longer be marked by any members of society as sinful, illegal or disgusting.”

But first we must rebel. Just as the Israelites rebelled both against Pharaoh and later against Moses and Aaron we too must rebel against the forces of oppression and also be willing to rebel against our leaders when they act in ways that are unacceptable. We should rebel in small ways; by subverting the hetero-normative aspects of our texts and traditions and by questioning and queering the texts. We should write new midrashim and weave new stories that speak to the community of queer and allied folks. We need to be willing to take that step of approaching Pharaoh, the source of oppression, and demand an end to bullying and tormenting and to be let go to live a life of self-expression.

We must also be willing to rebel in larger ways when our government fails us through inaction or intolerance; we should advocate and push our elected leaders to do what is right and just. We should demand equality for all people. And we should do it from a place of deep faith and understanding of those values within our biblical and contemporary traditions. We should demand changes to our laws to protect our youth from homophobic attack and bullying. We need to be willing to take that step of approaching our own leadership and demand that they do what is right.

In my desire to get fired up and to rebel, it is easy to forget the simple truth here. The story of the Exodus is not just a communal story of a people enslaved to Pharaoh and the rebellion of the Israelites. It is the story of an individual child; a baby placed into a reed basket and sent along the Nile to a new family. Moses is raised with a hidden identity as an Israelite and is brought up in a position of power from Pharaoh’s palace. As he grows he realizes that something about him is different from his Egyptian family and he begins to question. Only later in his life after a long journey does he discover, through an encounter with a burning bush, that he is not part of the majority culture.

Our rebellion for equality is in service of those young people who, like Moses, are struggling to come out of the closet and into the fullness of their identities. We hold the memories of those children and young adults who were murdered by intolerance in recent months and we offer up a vision of equality to let those who are still here know that it does get better, that people do find themselves and that we will leave this place of oppression and go to a land flowing with equality and justice. And although we are just at the beginning of the story it is clear where we will end. God has demanded that the Israelites be set free to live lives of meaning. We just have yet to fulfill that vision in our time. May that ancient vision, the freedom of an open society rich with the fullness of human expression, be granted to us, speedily and in our days. Amen.