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January 24, 2020
27 Tevet 5780

Parashat Va'era
Exodus 6:2 - 9:35


Dear Friends,

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a wide array of world leaders are gathered in Israel in commemoration of that historic event. We read again and again that the history of the Holocaust is not widely known. Even some of the comments of these world leaders give truth to that assertion. Why is it so hard to remember a difficult past? What causes us to turn our heads away?

In this week’s Torah portion, Va'era (Exodus 6:2-9:35), Moses and Aaron meet with Pharaoh for the first time and the first plagues happen. While these events are very dramatic, there is also something far more subtle going on -- something that may remind us of ourselves and the importance of remembering that which has come before. When Moses and Aaron came to the people and told them that they were to be freed, the people simply could not take it in. All those years of bondage allowed them to forget who they were. They may have had stories of the past, but it all seemed so distant, so far removed from their daily experience as slaves. At this key moment, they were unable to see a different future -- a different possibility. Although we are not slaves, we oft times cannot see what is right in front of us, both the good and the bad, the easy and that which is difficult. We hide away from the possibility of change and transformation because it can seem all too overwhelming. After all, who are we that we can change the way we see the world and with that change of perspective cause change?

Can this pattern be why this story is core to who we are as people? Is the need to remember why we tell this story over and over again, in so many different ways and different settings? Not only do we read this story from the Torah, but we tell the story not once but twice on Pesach over two nights of seders.

This parsha is not an easy story. When we tell it at our seders, we are instructed to remember that we were all slaves in the land of Egypt. The power of a good story is that it places you right within the center, making you feel as though you too were there.

For many years, the stories of the Shoah (the Holocaust) were left untold, because no one could tell the story in its entirety. When survivors spoke when I was growing up, they told pieces and fragments -- very powerful fragments, with the knowledge that more might be too much to bear, not only for the listener but also for the teller.

Do you think we have the full story of slavery? Of course not. We have the story of going beyond the moment of slavery, the moment of recognition that something else might be possible. And it takes time to get to that moment. It takes plagues. It takes radical change.

Slavery and the Shoah are two very different experiences. What they have in common is our human capacity for cruelty and for making those who have been othered less than human. The challenge is how to get beyond those experiences and to heal.

When we study Torah we know that the generation that were slaves were never fully free. They never made it to the next step.

We are not so constrained. We know the story. We know that it takes work to be free. We know that, in spite of all that may be going wrong around us, we are blessed with the freedom and flexibility for self-transformation.

We have our communal story to guide us; each of us has at least one family story to remind us of what is possible. May we be inspired by those who have come before us and remember their stories as source of inspiration.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781