Many people don’t know the Torah is the story of the Jewish people. My portion is about one of the most important events in Jewish history – when the Jews are slaves in Egypt and when they gain freedom.
It all starts with the story of a Hebrew man named Joseph who could interpret dreams. My Hebrew name is Josepha, the female form of Joseph. However, I don’t interpret dreams, so don’t ask me. Once, I did have a dream where I met the Kardashians, but that’s probably because I fell asleep watching “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”. So, there’s probably no special talent there. Anyway, the Pharaoh – the king of Egypt – once had a dream that he didn’t understand, and that upset him, it kind of troubled him. Someone suggested that Joseph, the Hebrew, could help him. Joseph did interpret the dream, and Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph the head of administration for the empire. Joseph was doing very well and encouraged all the other Hebrew people – such as his family – to join him in Egypt.
Eventually that Pharaoh died and Joseph’s fame faded. He becomes unknown because then a new Pharaoh comes who has never even heard of Joseph, like how my generation doesn’t really know about George W Bush and his advisors. Pharaoh becomes afraid of the Jews because they’re different, like Donald Trump with Muslims. So the Pharaoh makes the Hebrews slaves. God isn’t happy about this, so God calls Moses as a leader.
Moses is the Jewish baby boy who floated down the river in a basket because his mother was trying to save his life. The Pharaoh at that time was killing all Jewish baby boys just because they were Jewish. Moses was found downstream by the Pharoah’s daughter and she adopted him, so he grew up as a prince in Pharoah’s kingdom. Moses could have had an easy life and no worries, but somewhere deep within him he kept jumping into the middle of things when he saw people treat each other poorly. This habit put him in serious danger several times. But he just couldn’t stand there and watch injustice, so he tried to stop it in its tracks when he saw it. He jumped into the middle of things and defended the victims.
The rest of the story is that God talked to Moses one night in the wilderness and told Moses that he must go to the Pharoah and demand that Pharaoh set the Jewish slaves free. So this is how Moses, the Jewish baby, Egyptian prince, and prophet comes to be leading the slaves out from Egypt.
Now we’re at my portion. It starts at the line, “V’yigad l’melech mitzrayim ki varach ha-am, va-yay-hafaych l’vov paro v’avodav el ha-am.” or “When Pharaoh was told that the Hebrews had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart.” Then Pharaoh orders his chariots and soldiers and they follow the Jews. The Egyptians are chasing after the Jews, the Jews are trying to follow Moses, and Moses is leading them to the Red Sea because Moses is following God, and Moses has led the Jewish people to a place that appears to be a dead end.
So, “ No yay Moses!” right? The Jewish people are afraid they will die there – they are, to use the expression “between a rock and a hard place.” They have the Egyptian soldiers behind them and the sea in front of them and there appears to be no way out. They start questioning Moses on why he brought them there to die, I mean, who wouldn’t? They begin to wonder if following Moses as a leader was a good idea. Could they even rely on him?
I can totally relate to doubting whether I’m in good hands if I’m worrying that I might not make it out alive. On a much lighter example, I remember sitting in the backseat of a little car with my best friend, and we are deep in the Italian countryside where everything looks the same – a sea of trees, hills and windy, narrow roads. And we could overhear the grown ups saying that we were lost. And it’s already dark. So, my friend and I are kind of really scared at this point. So we make up a song to sing to everyone in the car, including ourselves. Does anyone remember the song “The Farmer and the Dell”?
Okay, so the song was to the melody of that and it consisted of the lyrics: We’re driving till we die, we’re driving all night, driving, driving, driving, driving, driving till we die! And then we had audience participation time where someone would say a verb and we would substitute the word “driving” for the verb. So, the song might be “we’re singing till we die” and so on. So in that fearful state, I was like the Hebrews at the Red Sea. My friend and I sat in the backseat and hoped for the best while we were in the hands of people who loved us, my parents, while they struggled to figure out how to lead us back to civilization, because there were no people in this town except for suspicious looking characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were doing some talking with God, too. I think I heard that name a few times up front.
Now, back to Moses – because the people are so worried and traumatized, Moses then starts to wonder whether he does have it all under control and he finds some self doubt, so he goes to talk to God. God tells Moses that everything will be fine, all you have to do is raise your rod over the sea and it’ll part and everyone will walk through it without drowning. Moses is reassured by God, but still afraid that he isn’t a good leader for the people who have put so much faith in him.
I know how that might feel, to have self doubt. I have this friend who told me that she had some serious problems and told me not to tell anyone. That put me in a difficult situation because I wanted to honor our friendship and keep her trust, but the problem was so serious that I was afraid she would get worse and not get better. I didn’t want her to be upset, but I also didn’t want her to get worse. I was like Moses, unsure that I was actually doing the right thing.
After a lot of thought, and a lot of crying I might add, I told my moms about it, and they made sure that my friend got some help. At first, my friend didn’t talk to me. She completely avoided me, she wouldn’t even make eye contact even when I tried to start a conversation. Eventually, she reconnected with me in a positive way. Now I feel good that I did the right thing, but there were times I wasn’t so sure, and I imagine Moses felt that way right before he talked to God.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Pharaoh is afraid of losing his power; not having all the resources and riches he is used to having. Then the plagues happen and he is even more afraid because, you know, no one likes plagues. Plagues aren’t fun. He’s not in control, I mean you can’t really do anything. Moses keeps warning him to do the right thing and let the slaves go free. Pharoah has built this whole social pyramid in his mind in which the slaves are at the bottom and he is at the top.
He thinks that without the slaves, the whole structure might collapse. He would be one step closer to being the only class on the pyramid. Let’s say that after the slaves leave, then the commoners leave, then the nobles leave, and the pyramid only consists of Pharaoh. You can’t exactly have a social of one.
I think of Pharaoh as Donald Trump, sorry for everyone who agrees with him in the audience, but he’s stupid, unfair, and he doesn’t treat people equally. Trump’s way of talking about Mexicans and Muslims is like Pharaoh and the Jews. Pharaoh can’t even imagine a way of making things work out well. Pharaoh thinks, “Well, gotta get rid of those Jews.” Just like Trump thinks about Muslims and Mexicans – the only answer he can think of is to get rid of them. In a way, all people with power are tied to having “slaves,” that is, people under them who they are on top of. And if they had a more equal idea, it would be better.
But other leaders use their authority well. Let me give an example: my two best guy friends like climbing and adventuring and then there’s me. We were on a mini-hike down by the rocky part of the pier. So their parents helped me follow them by showing me good places to step. I had a great time because I did something that I wouldn’t have been able to do without help and guidance.
The commentary on the Torah says that Moses told Pharaoh that the Jews were only going to go into the desert temporarily to worship their God. Moses might have been acting strategic here. Perhaps he is telling the truth at the time when he says this, and then when the situation presents the possibility of permanent freedom, he takes it. Or maybe he is lying to Pharaoh to avoid a confrontation – he knows they are going to flee, but he doesn’t want to give it away to Pharaoh. It’s a bit like President Obama when he was first running and said he didn’t approve of gay marriage, and then later – in his second term – he says he had a change of heart. You could take that either way, that he was being strategic in order to get votes or that some events led him to change his views.
The Jewish Sages used to tell stories to add onto what is written in the Torah. This is called Midrash. There is a midrash about my portion that tells the story of a man named Nachshon. When all the Hebrews approach the Red Sea, they are all scared, waiting for the sea to do something. They can hear the chariots behind them as Moses is off having his talk with God.
So this one guy, Nachshon, decides to just start walking to the sea. He has faith that God will open up the sea. He walks in and he is knee deep, and the water hasn’t parted. He keeps walking. He is up to his chest and the water hasn’t parted. The water is up to his lips and he is going to drown and he prays to God to part the sea and it does. And then everyone – including Moses – follows him.
It’s good to have faith. I have faith in my family and friends that they will be there for me. Probably everyone in this room has faith in something.
Being called to the Torah, like I was today, means that I’m a Jewish adult, but I still don’t have to pay taxes yet, thank God. I have more responsibilities and most of the time I have a hard time remembering my responsibility. One on my responsibilities is feeding my dogs. If I don’t feed my dogs, they would get sick. I’d rather have healthy dogs, so then I need to feed them – that’s basically what it means to be an adult. I’m still a child from the American point of view in that I don’t get to drive. But from my dog’s perspective, I’m an adult.
Judaism agrees with my dogs, Josh and Choe, in that I’m being a responsible adult. So for example, I’m standing here in front of all of you today- my family and friends, and my face is probably as red as a tomato as I read from the Torah, wear this beautiful tallit that my grandma gave me, and give this speech. All these things are ways to show that I’m a Jewish adult.
The way I look at being a mature moral person is this: I’m still just me, and I will continue to always do what I think is right in life. What is changing for me is the reason I will do so. It’s not so much about doing as I’m told, anymore. Or getting more brownie points at home or earning good grades at school, because it’s expected. Instead, I feel I will be making choices according to what I believe is right- out of kindness, because I care deeply about others; against injustice, because it is all around us, and challenging myself when, because miracles can happen. When you respect yourself and others, positive change can happen. I believe in positive change. I really believe that I can change, schools can change, society can change, oppressive religious ideas can change. And jumping into the middle and fighting for what really needs to change in any of these is about as grown up as life gets, in my opinion.
Another adult thing to do is to express gratitude. I’d like to thank my grandparents and my aunts and uncles from New York, and my grandparents from North Dakota for coming all this way to celebrate. I also want to thank cousins and friends who made the journey. I’m really excited that my sisters are here. Thank you. Patti and Rabbi Jane have been amazing, astounding, and absolutely impeccable in helping me learn how to lead a service, chant Torah and write a drash. I appreciate Pastor Michael for being kind and funny and joining in the service. My parents are very loving and caring people who want all the best for me. I am extremely lucky and blessed to be their daughter. And thank all of you for being here with me today.