Shemot: Every time I say no

Shemot: Every time I say no

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Ever since my high school years, I’ve been a huge fan of the science fiction television drama “Babylon 5,” which concerns the conflicts surrounding a space station in the middle of the twenty-third century. Near the end of the fourth season, Captain John Sheridan, the protagonist, is captured for staging a rebellion against his own government. Regarded as a traitor, Sheridan is tortured, interrogated, and the government tries to force his confession.

But at the moment where Sheridan is presented with the choice of confessing or being executed, he manages to turn the tables. Addressing his interrogator, Sheridan says, “You know it’s funny, I was thinking about what you said: ‘The preeminent truth of our age is you cannot fight the system.’ But if, as you say, the truth is fluid, the truth is subjective, then maybe you can fight the system, as long as just one person refuses to be broken, refuses to bow down.”

His interrogator responds, “But can you win?”

And Sheridan says, “Every time I say no.”

What does it mean for us to stand up and say no? Are we willing to use our voices, to protest with all of our hearts, to truly understand what it means to defend the rights of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger? Do we fully comprehend what it means in the words of the prophet Amos, “to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream?”

Because here we are. And this is now. We’re not aboard some distant space station in the twenty-third century; we’re right here in our United States of America, on the 20th of January 2017 — the day on which Donald J. Trump has celebrated his inauguration as our president, a moment some of us celebrate, and a moment that some of us fear deeply. After a rancorous and bitter two-year campaign, we no longer question who will be our president. But we are left questioning this proverbial Mitzrayim in which we find ourselves, these divided red or blue states we inhabit.

Our Mitzrayim is a place of conflicting ideologies, characterized by an absence of trust. We live in a society of discord, a world torn by racial injustice, violence, drug epidemics, poverty, hunger, and homelessness, where fear toward immigrants is commonplace, and where our government looks to suspend access to health care for countless individuals.

But as long as just one person refuses to be broken, refuses to bow down… maybe we can fight the system. Consider the midwives Shifrah and Puah in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, as an example of what it means to “fight the system.”

When Pharaoh commanded these midwives to kill Hebrew baby boys and let Hebrew baby girls live, Shifrah and Puah responded. As the Torah tells us, “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). What did it mean for Shifrah and Puah to stand up to Pharaoh? Ordered by Pharaoh to take life away, to cause irreparable harm, to inflict suffering and unspeakable pain, Shifrah and Puah responded with remarkable action, their very behavior reminding us that all life is sacred, that all life is worth saving, that all life has inestimable worth.

Twentieth century biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz has taught, “It is the attitude towards the minority, to the defenseless outsider or stranger that determines whether a particular person or group possesses the fear of God… The Torah indicates how the individual can resist evil, he need not shirk his moral responsibility under cover of superior orders.”

American society has never allowed us to avoid the society in which we live — just the opposite. We are given freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble publicly and, if necessary, to protest our government’s actions, and let our voices be heard. Shifrah and Puah weren’t silent, and neither can we afford to be. We must recognize our sacred calling, and like Moses, we need to surround ourselves as we organize with other like-minded Aarons and like-minded Miriams.

But can we win? It’s not as easy as refusing to be broken, refusing to bow down, and fighting the system. The truth is that it’s not about winning. The end goal is simply to make this world a better, more humane place, a place where we recognize the sacred ground upon which all of us stand, and even more importantly, where we pause and see the sacredness present in each other. Such an endgame would mean that all of us could win. Now that’s a goal worth fighting for.

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