A New Pharaoh Arose in Egypt…


(The following is a mash-up of Saturday morning’s Shabbat sermon and my words at the SF Women’s March that afternoon as we prepared to pray with our feet. Above is a photo of a tiny fraction of the crowd in front of SF City Hall.)

It’s time.

Time to tell the story again. One of the greatest stories in our sacred human inheritance. A story which has inspired people in times of trouble all over the world for generations. It’s a story that gives us a template for the struggle against tyranny and slavery of all kinds.

I’m talking about the story of the Exodus, in Hebrew, Yetziat Mitzrayim. On the morning after the inauguration of America’s 45th President, even as millions marched worldwide, Jewish communities in every corner read and discussed the story of Moses confronting Pharaoh which began in the week’s Torah portion.  It’s a story Jews remember every day in our prayers, every winter as we read through the Torah, and every Spring as we celebrate Passover.  I have studied and told and listened to this story thousands of times in my life and I can’t think of a moment I felt I needed it more than I do now.

So I want to tell you the story…

A new Pharaoh took office in Egypt who did not know he was not God.  He said to his people, “Behold, there is a people in our midst, the Children of Israel.  They are different from us.  They are dangerous.  What if they were to join with our enemies and rise up against us?!”

Using fear and hate, this new Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites to build with hard labor.  Pyramids rose – towers, reaching to the heavens, glorious monuments to Pharaoh’s name.  Yet still he was afraid and commanded the midwives Shifrah and Puah to kill every baby Hebrew boy at birth.

And there the resistance began.  In the first example of civil disobedience ever recorded in human history, the midwives followed their God-given sense of right and wrong and refused to follow immoral orders.

The Children of Israel continued to multiply until Pharaoh commanded all of his people to kill newborn baby boys, making his whole society complicit in a policy of killing innocents.

But one baby boy survived when his mother floated him down the river in a basket. An Egyptian princess, Pharaoh’s own daughter, took pity on him and loved him and raised him as her own.

That baby, Moses, became the hero of the story we know.

God called to him from the burning bush and said, “I have a job for you,” and Moses agreed.  Even though he doubted his own ability.  Even though it would have been easier to stay safe shepherding flocks in the desert.

Lord knows we need some heroes today.

We need leaders who will go to the powers that be and say, as Abraham said to God Himself, “Far be it from You to behave this way!”

We need leaders who will say,  “Far be it from you to proclaim America’s greatness even as you trample the institutions and values that make our Democracy function – freedom of religion, free and fair elections, an independent truth-telling press, public education, human rights, civil rights!”

Yes, we need those courageous leaders who will be Moses and stand up to Pharaoh.  But we also need the midwives and the princesses.  Resisting evil decrees, using positions of privilege to protect the vulnerable.

We even need the slaves, who finally finally, after 400 years, turned away from their twitter feeds and facebook pages and awoke to their own suffering and cried out to God. Only after their cry did God pay attention and act to free them.


Today we march with the stories of our ancestors in our hearts, offering guidance to us now as we face our own struggles.

Today we march remembering the moral courage of the midwives and the kindness of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Today we march remembering how Moses stepped out of his comfort zone to answer God’s call.

Today we march because the struggle for freedom and justice did not end when the Israelites crossed the sea.  That struggle continues to this day.  And we too are a part of this sacred story.

Today as we march for women’s rights, for human rights, for civil rights, we lend our bodies to story much bigger than one lifetime.

As it is taught in the ancient rabbinic text, Pirke Avot, it is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.  Today, we all take up that sacred work, which even Moses did not complete.

May we come to see the day when all human beings are free and safe, when nations use their powers and their wealth to protect even the most vulnerable in their midst.  May we live to see the day when men and women of all colors, religions, sexual orientations and abilities are treated fairly and equally under the law of the land.  May we live to see the day when fear and hate give way to love and respect in our public discourse, and America lives up to its aspiration to be a land of liberty and justice for all.