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Extending our Reach

01/05/2024 01:12:33 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus. In Hebrew, Shemot actually means Names because it starts out with a listing of the sons of Jacob, the predecessors of the Tribes of Israel. Parashat Shemot is a surprisingly jam-packed Torah portion, with so much happening somehow despite the huge time jumps. The Israelites are enslaved, Pharaoh tries to commit genocide against them, Moses is born and adopted into Pharaoh’s family, Moses kills a taskmaster and runs away, gets married, has kids, one of his kids has a weird medical emergency that is remedied by his non-Israelite wife circumcising their son, God appears to Moses in the burning bush, and Moses appears before Pharaoh for the first time for his iconic “Let My People Go” moment.

          When Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the river, she sends her “ammatah” which can be translated as her young servant girl or her arm-length. Rashi comments on this that it is intended to teach us that “her arm was extended for many arm-lengths”. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk continues this train of thought:

If Moses’ basket lay beyond her reach, why did Pharaoh’s daughter extend her arm? Could she possibly have anticipated the miracle that her hand would be “extended for many arm-lengths”? … Often, we are confronted with a situation that is beyond our capacity to rectify. Someone or something is crying out for our help, but there is nothing we can do: by all natural criteria, the matter is simply beyond our reach. So we resign ourselves to inactivity, reasoning that the little we can do won’t change matters anyway. But Pharaoh’s daughter heard a child’s cry and extended her arm. An unbridgeable distance lay between her and the basket containing the weeping infant, making her action seem utterly pointless. But because she did the maximum of which she was capable, she achieved the impossible.

It's so easy in today’s world to feel resigned to the way things are. So much is out of our control. Large corporations are destroying the environment, politicians are using our tax dollars to bomb children while ignoring cries for debt relief and healthcare for our own children, and rampant consumerism feels unavoidable despite knowing how much we are feeding the problems of corrupt businesses and politicians by continuing to buy stuff the cheapest and the fastest we can at the cost of fair labor or reasonable green initiatives.

We can extend our regular arm lengths by recycling at home, buying local when convenient, giving tzedakah to organizations or people who address climate change, medical debt, aid those in war zones, and so on. But we can also extend our many arms-length, going beyond what feels normal or possible to advocate for real change. To hold accountable the people committing these crimes against humanity. We can extend our reach by engaging in ongoing yet targeted boycotts. We can extend our reach by spreading information and politely debating and encouraging the misinformed, the uninformed, and the determinedly “apolitical.” We can extend our reach by advocating in the halls of power for legislation that actually curbs greenhouse gases and redirects tax-payer money for social services and infrastructure needed to help our own communities thrive. We can extend our reach by campaigning, canvassing, donating, and voting for local politicians who show promise for true social progression, and help them move up the political ladder to displace the establishment politicians who only look out for their own pursuits of money and power.  By reaching beyond our own household, our own convenience, we can be setting up the next generation for better success. We too may be rescuing future leaders from drowning, whether drowned by genocidal rulers, drowning by rising sea waters, or drowning in debt. We have a responsibility to act outside the norm, outside the societal acceptance of mass death, outside what feels doable, because even if we cannot save all the babies metaphorically drowning in the proverbial Nile, we can in fact do more and we can make a difference in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon would say, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

The Torah does not name Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from the River, but the Talmud refers to her as “Batya” – the daughter of God, of the Israelite God. The story of Moses is rife with non-Israelites who are in some way claimed by God as righteous, as honorary Israelites, as a part of our history and ancestry, and this is the woman who started it all. May we too be seen as righteous children of God, holy leaders of the Israelite people, flagbearers marching forward the future of the Jewish people. May we extend our reach toward the good and the just, and may we build this world with love. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784