Parshat Bo: Facing the Pharaohs of every generation

Rabbi John Franken
(Courtesy of Rabbi John Franken)

By Rabbi John Franken

This week witnesses the dramatic growth of Moses from a timid shepherd reluctant to take on the most powerful tyrant on earth to an emboldened leader who refuses to yield.

At the beginning, the ever-humble Moses demurs at God’s entreaties to go to Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” Even as God has assured him of his rod’s ability to perform marvels, he protests that a person “slow of speech and slow of tongue” surely cannot be an effective spokesperson and agent of the Eternal.

In this week’s parshah, Bo, we see no such hesitation. As soon as Moses and Aaron are commanded to go back to Pharaoh, they get going with alacrity. This time, far from shrinking in Pharaoh’s presence, they accuse Egypt’s man-god of arrogance and pride, threatening devastation to the remnant left after the recent plague. They even turn their backs on Pharaoh when they withdraw.

This transformation can be due to only two things: Moses’ faith in the Eternal and Moses’ faith in the rightness of his cause.

This week, we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a prophet like Moses who stood up to the Pharaohs of the American South whose tyranny deprived millions of their right to vote, live in certain neighborhoods, send their children to certain schools and obtain decent jobs. The single most important ingredient of his success was not a gift for oratory, or even the nonviolent movement he assembled and maintained. The most important element of his success was the faith he had in the rightness of his cause and his willingness to act upon it.

Just before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, his friend, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, spoke, declaring, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

In our time, no less than in King’s, we can ill-afford to be silent in the face of tyranny and injustice. Whether it is a neo-fascist mob attacking the United States Congress, the Chinese government stripping the Hong Kong people of their civil and human rights or Russia’s Putin regime arresting the brave opposition leader Alexei Navalny after first failing to murder him, let us not be silent. Let all of us speak truth to the Pharaohs of our time.

John Franken is rabbi of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

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