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Vaera / Bo 5783                 January 21, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

This week’s parsha, Bo, tells the exciting conclusion of the war between Moses and Pharoah which was also a war between God and the many gods of Egypt. Egypt takes one hit after another, hits that leave the land and the people weaker and weaker as well as making Pharoah seem weak and helpless in the face of the plagues. There are many promises made and broken as the war goes on. Pharoah’s advisors implore him to give up the fight lest Egypt be destroyed, but each time Pharoah begs for relief, the end of the plague only hardens his heart, and he reneges on all his promises and so the war continues until it’s tragic end.

But I don’t want to focus on the end of the war this Shabbat. I want to focus on Moses at the beginning of this struggle. The first skirmish of this war ends as Moses is ejected from the palace of Pharoah who not only refuses to let the Israelite slaves go, but who also increases their work by refusing to provide straw for their bricks. It is a really bad day. The Israelites are frustrated with Moses who promised them freedom and has, so far, only made their lives worse. It is the lowest moment in Moses’ life, and he complains to God that nothing has changed, nor will it ever change.

God then replies to the frustrated Moses, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

My friend, Mordechai Silverstein finds a midrash that focuses on Moses’ feeling of dejection in that moment. The Midrash teaches; “And Moshe went back to the Lord, and said: ‘My Lord, why have you done harm to the people’   If a man should dare say to a person more important than himself, ‘Why did you do harm?’ he would be considered to have done something very offensive. Nevertheless, Moshe said: Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You surely have not rescued Your people (Exodus 6:23). The Holy One, blessed be He said to Moshe: … How many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the Lord Almighty, but I never spoke to them by the four lettered name, as I speak to you. Yet, they never criticized My ways. I said to Avraham: ‘Rise, walk about the land through its length’ (Genesis 13:1), yet, when he searched for a burial place for Sarah and was unable to find one until he paid four hundred shekels of silver, he did not criticize My ways. I said to Yitzhak: ‘Sojourn in this land …for to you and your seed I will give all these lands.’ (Genesis 26:3), but even when he wanted water to drink and was unable to find any, as it says: “And the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s shepherds, saying: ‘The water is ours’” (Genesis 26:20), he did not criticize My ways. I said to Yaakov: “The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed (Genesis 28:13), yet when he wanted a place to pitch his tent, he could not find one until he purchased it with a hundred keshita, yet he did not criticize My ways. But you (Moshe), at the very beginning of My mission, you asked Me, “What is your name?” and now you say: “’Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, He has done harm…’ (Exodus 5:23) Therefore, ‘Now will you see what I shall do to Pharaoh…’ (Exodus 6:1).

The Midrash is focused on dejection. But I am not sure that dejection is what is on the mind of Moses. I think that what he feels is fear. I think that he is afraid that he is not good enough to redeem the people. He is afraid that he will make things worse, not better. He is afraid that his own people will come to hate him and not praise him for making them free. He is afraid that God will abandon him, and he will have to flee into the wilderness again.

And God responds by saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Despair is a dark pit that has no escape. Fear is an emotion that inevitably brings on more fear. Once we are afraid, then we find more and more things to be afraid of. Deeper and deeper into the pit of despair we fall. So, God gives Moses the one thing that will drive away the fear and help him escape his despair. God gives Moses hope.

Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston sang about hope in the movie, “Prince of Egypt.” In the song they sing,

There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail, it's hard to kill
Who knows what miracles you can achieve?
When you believe, somehow you will
You will when you believe”

It only takes a little bit of hope to overcome a great deal of fear. Fear takes us nowhere. Hope gives us wings to fly.

We are living in a world that is filled with fear. Who can blame us for feeling afraid? We watch the news on any channel and find so many things to make us afraid. Gun violence, Antisemitism, Racism, White Nationalism, war, the rise of totalitarianism; We become afraid to walk the streets, we are afraid of what can happen at work or at our schools, we are afraid that our enemies will attack us. We are afraid that our technology can be turned against us. The culture wars that our politicians fight are designed to make us afraid of what they teach in schools, about what the liberals or the conservatives will be taking away from us tomorrow. We have leadership that wants to change history. Leadership that tells us that they will protect us from all our enemies. Only they can fix this. All we need to do is trust them.

But what the fear mongers don’t want you to know is that we don’t need to be afraid. There are many more things that are right with our country and with our society. There are certainly problems but if we want, we have the capacity to fix them. Even the most complex problems can be fixed if there is a will to fix them. If we look back at the history of the United States, there have always been difficult problems, but good Americans went to work and made this country better.

What those who sell fear, fear the most is that people will have hope in the future. We don’t need help from anyone to have hope for a better tomorrow. When we feel good about ourselves and about our future, anything is possible. As President Franklin Roosevelt said when this country faced a deep and dark depression, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”

I have had many people ask me how I can be such an optimist about the world. Why do I believe that everything will work itself out in the end? First of all, Judaism teaches that we have to believe in our fellow human beings. That they will do the right thing if we let them. We are all in the image of God and we carry godly virtues in us. It is our belief in being better that I have faith in. One of my favorite stories is about Israel crossing the Red Sea and moving from slavery to freedom. Except there are two guys who are walking across the damp seabed and are not happy. “Look at all this mud” said one. “It is getting all over my sandals” said the other. The first man replied, “It is like the mud we used to work in to make our bricks. Slavery or freedom, it all seems to be the same mud.” All they have to do is look up and see the miracle around them. But they only look down and see mud.

Second, it is easy to be an optimist. When faced with a challenge, I have a choice. I can assume that everything will go wrong, and a disaster is imminent. Or, for the same cost, I can assume that everything will be okay and tomorrow will be better. If I have a choice between optimism and pessimism, pessimism will never make me feel any better. I always choose the option that will make the world better and it makes me feel better too.

Finally, optimism gives me the space to find better ideas. The world is not perfect but when I believe that it can be better, I can think of things I can do, and things my friends can do to make the world better. There is a story about the great architect Sir Christopher Wren who visited a construction site of a church he had designed. He asked one of the workmen there what he was doing. The man replied, “I am laying bricks.” The architect went a little further and saw another man. He asked him what he was doing. The man replied “I am earning six dollars an hour” came the reply. He approached a third man who was working on the site. “What are you doing? asked Sir Wren. The man replied, “I am building a cathedral to God.”

Just don’t listen when someone tells you “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Our faith teaches us to always have hope in tomorrow. When we believe in God, it does not make all our problems disappear, but it does help us to keep our focus on our hope for tomorrow rather than sitting and worrying about what might be.

The People of Israel, now, in Parshat Bo, finally understand the power of God that is at their back. They are commanded to teach this to their children, “This is what God did for me when I was a slave in Egypt. We thought that Pharoah would crush us, now we understand the power of our belief in God and our hope for our future. This is the essence of the story of the Exodus and the point of the Passover Haggadah: Never lose faith in the future. Never give up hope.

Miracles can happen when you believe. Give hope a try. Never give up. Believe in miracles. It doesn’t cost any extra and even a little hope can go a long, long way. Things may look bad now, but the world can and will get better. Hope may be frail, but it is hard, perhaps impossible to kill. Or as Theodore Herzl might say, “If you will it, it will not be just a dream.” Let us hope for a better future and then roll up our sleeves and make it happen. Let us look forward to the day we will teach our children, “This is what God did for me when I was afraid of the future. God gave me hope”

May God help us have faith in our future, and may we never fear what lies ahead. May God give us the strength to make all our hopes and dreams come true for our community and for our country.

 As we say...   Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784