Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek of Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, NY gave the following remarks at the Poor People's Campaign action on June 11 in Albany, NY:
Hello, I'm Rabbi Brent Spodek from Beacon Hebrew Alliance and I'm thrilled to be here today.
We are here today to make sure that we have access to education, access to jobs, to housing. More than anything else, we are here to get liberated.
We are here as part of the Poor People’s Campaign because want to be free of the oppression, exploitation, hypocrisy and greed that define so much of our common lives.
But this is not the first poor people's campaign, and the efforts of Dr. King 50 years ago were not the first poor people's campaign either. The first poor people’s campaign was thousands of years ago, not in Albany or Washington, but in Egypt, where our Israelite ancestors clamored to go free.
For people longing for their own liberation, nothing is stronger than the desire for a messiah, someone who will come and solve all their problems in a flash, snapping fingers and making everything better.
Now, in the Exodus story, Moses is the hero of the story, but he is not the Messiah. He began his career as a well-intentioned but rash punk. He does not easily and instantly make everything better. Moses acted three times before he encountered the Holy One at the Burning Bush, and each time, he intervened impulsively to save the weak suffering at the hands of the mighty.
When Moses first left Pharaoh’s house he saw an Egyptian unjustly beating a Hebrew worker and killed the aggressor. The very next day, he rescued an innocent Hebrew, this time from an wicked Hebrew who was assaulting him. In a third instinctive act of justice, Moses rescued young women who had been chased away from a well by some hooligans.
But while Moses had an instinct for justice, he didn’t have a method. His behavior was powerful and inspiring - it was also impulsive, violent and ultimately inadequate. There was a whole system which allowed Egyptian cops to beat innocent Hebrews at will, but Moses didn’t address that – he simply acted on what he saw.
Moses was a momentary hero, so fixated on the injustice in front of him that he could not see deeper, into what caused the injustice. He saw that one Egyptian cop beating on that one Hebrew slave & responded to that “one bad apple.”
In contemporary terms, the problem is not simply that NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner on Staten Island; the problem is a legal culture that permits, arms, celebrates and honors Blue Lives, even when the do the killing. But Moses didn’t yet know that.
But the Holy One taught Moses how to see the structures that caused these seemingly random events. These were the structures that needed to be changed if justice was to be realized. The Holy One taught Moses to take his outrage at the world as it is and to build it into the world it needs to be.
The Holy One famously hardens Pharaoh's heart ten times, bringing plague after plague after plague, every time Pharoah rejects the call to let the people go.
God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart ten times in order to bring the Israelites out of Egypt; God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again and again so that Moses, and all of us who learn from his life, would know that working for change is hard and frustrating and demands awesome persistence and discipline. Moses made a name for himself with his outbursts of passion, but he didn’t make a difference until he had a plan and he stuck to it.
By making Moses march off to Pharaoh again and again and again, the Master of the Universe taught him that the only way for humans to effect any real change in the world is through incredibly difficult work. We all want to believe there will be a messiah who will fix the mess we are in as quickly as Moses killed the Egyptian who was beating on the Hebrew. Maybe in the hereafter, but not in the here and now.
That’s why Moses had to go to the Organizing Academy at Pharaoh's Palace - it was the first Highlander Folk School, teaching Moses how to make a difference. Moses was not a quick student though - he had to go back and back and back and back and back to take that class ten times.
It's not enough to respond to the injustice we see. We have to go to the seat of power and we have go again and again, with power marshaled behind you, in order to make a difference.
This is the big lesson of Exodus - at least in political terms, there is no messiah. There is only work. Moses was not a messiah. Dr. King was not a messiah. Obama was not a messiah and neither was Hillary or Bernie. Trump is certainly not the messiah.
There is no messiah except you and you and me and the work we do. The only way the Israelites made it out of Egypt was yes, with leadership, and by joining together and marching. The only way we will get to where we want to
Go, to the promised land of access to education, access to jobs, to housing -- the only way we get liberated is by joining together and calling and writing and marching and donating and voting.