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Echoes of the Exodus Story in Wisconsin

Echoes of the Exodus Story in Wisconsin

feingold_rabbi_dena.jpgRabbi Dena Feingold of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, Wisconsin delivered a sermon entitled "Echoes of the Exodus Story in Wisconsin" on February 25, 2011. In it, she reflects on similarities between the Israelites' fight for freedom and the struggle of state employees in Wisconsin against a bill proposed by Governor Scott Walker that would strip public unions of collective bargaining rights. Discussing the Jewish values that motivate the Reform Movement's strong stance on labor rights, she outlines actions that members of her community can take to demonstrate solidarity with the workers.

As events in our state capital rage on for a second week, I want to take some time this evening to examine why religious groups all over the state and groups of rabbis, in their own right, are speaking out on one particular side of this issue. To some, the connection to religion may seem obscure. What does the state budget or collective bargaining have to do with matters of faith and soul? How can ancient sacred texts speak to something that is going on in Madison, WI today?

Judaism is as much a system of ethics and a way of life as it is a set of beliefs and a source of faith. Other religious groups that are speaking out on this issue see themselves as expressing the moral values inherent in their teachings as well. In the past week, we have seen statements from the rabbis of Madison and a separate one from rabbis across the state, spearheaded by our Reform movement Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. Yet another statement came from a coalition of interfaith leaders in WISDOM, of which our local CUSH organization is a part. In addition, the Archbishop of Milwaukee has sent a letter to the Capitol, quoting a papal encyclical, and the Lutheran Bishop of Milwaukee has sent his own letter as well. The Episcopal Bishop of Milwaukee joined with others in prayer and procession in Madison on Tuesday and the head of the Methodist Church in Wisconsin has offered a statement too. A quick search on Google shows that official religious statements thus far have all been critical of either the bill or of the Governor's tactics and have cited support for workers, the poor, and unions.

I have provided for your perusal two of these documents, which I signed onto this week. By reading these pieces, you will see that the religious community and Judaism, in particular, have strong precedents for supporting the rights of the worker and labor unions, from the Torah forward. And the Reform movement has statement after statement over the last century, siding with the rights of unions. But rather than reiterating this material, which you can read for yourself, what I want to do tonight is to tie the events in Madison to a story with which we are all familiar. That story is the Exodus from Egypt.

Soon, in the Jewish world, we will observe the holiday of Passover, during which we retell the story of the Exodus. This Shabbat and next week in synagogues all over the world, we are reading the very last chapters of the Book of Exodus. In essence, the Exodus story is about laborers suffering under the burden of government control over their lives and ultimately confronting the powers that be over that injustice.

Of course, there is a limit to linking this story to Wisconsin's current struggle. The ancient Israelites were slaves, not unionized public employees. They had no contracts or benefits, no collective bargaining or any other rights, for that matter. But they did face off with an intransigent head of government, the Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened to their plight. Sacred scripture tells us that these ancient laborers were freed from Egypt thanks to courageous human leadership and, of course, thanks to God seeing the injustice of the situation and taking the side of the slaves.

Interestingly, among the first commandments that the freed slaves received from God at Mt. Sinai, was the commandment to observe Shabbat--a guaranteed day of rest from labor every single week. The idea of a day of rest was an innovation at the time. Many other laws specific to workers' rights are found in the elsewhere in Torah and developed in the Talmud, and you can see these in the materials I have provided.

In making this comparison to the Exodus, it is important not to exaggerate. Union workers, like teachers and nursing home employees and prison workers, are not slaves, and Governor Walker is not a Pharaoh. No one is suggesting that Wisconsin workers be denied a day of rest or beaten if they do not return to their jobs or produce a certain quota of bricks. But there are some relevant similarities here.

To begin with, there is the blaming of one group for the ills of the state. The unions did not cause Wisconsin to have a deficit, but they are singularly being asked to "pay" for it by giving up their collective bargaining rights. As in the Exodus story, one group is singled out to bear the burden of the State's needs.

In the Torah, Moses approaches the Pharaoh about the unjust treatment of workers and finds Pharaoh unwilling to give at all. It takes days, weeks, perhaps even months (it is not entirely clear just how long the whole process of the Ten Plagues takes), but Moses, with the people behind him, waits it out until something finally breaks the will of the Pharaoh. Weeks of crying out for justice and so far, only the hardening of the heart: We cannot deny that there are echoes of this story in Wisconsin today.

Finally, according to the midrash, in the end it is the courage and faith not of Moses, but of a regular guy, Nachshon ben Amindav, that leads to true freedom. Nachshon steps into the raging waters at the Red Sea, causing the sea to split. Nachshons of our time have been pouring into Madison on a daily basis. And now, they are all over the state. I was at the UAW hall in Kenosha yesterday; there were 700 regular guys and gals like Nachshon--in jeans and sweatshirts, with their kids in tow, holding home-made signs, wading into the waters, looking for a way to make the sea part.

Clearly, Egypt was not a democracy. The slaves had no expectation of their representatives being "heard," negotiating, or putting matters to a vote. But, in our world, we do expect and have a right to these opportunities. Being denied these things have tested our state's leaders. Senators have left the state; assemblymen filibustered for 60 hours until the majority cut off debate early this morning. These are extreme measures for extreme circumstances.

These officials say that these actions were aimed at gaining time to get the issue heard and discussed more. They hoped that time would bring understanding among the people. In the same way, the rabbis of the midrash taught that the plagues were not to convince Pharaoh-- but to convince the Israelites-- to help them understand their plight and what they could do with God's help. God could have made Pharaoh give up right away; but instead brought days or weeks or months of plagues. The senators and assemblymen have bought time to help average Wisconsin citizen see what is at stake. They are succeeding. The crowds are growing and expanding to more cities. Remember when we were amazed that 13,000 showed up in Madison 10 days ago? 100,000 are expected in Madison tomorrow.

Next week, an interfaith group of religious leaders that I am part of through CUSH will propose an action that religious folks throughout Wisconsin, regardless of their religious tradition can take: We will offer a prayer to be recited along with some kind of sacrifice or commitment to be made in solidarity with those who stand to lose the most if this bill is passed. The action could be fasting, serving at a Soup Kitchen, or any other type of action. There will be a website where people can post their actions. This will be another way for people to make their voices heard, speaking truth to power in our State Capitol.

It is no coincidence that the religious community is lining up only on one side of this issue. Our traditions, since the time of enslavement in Egypt, have always sided with the poor, the powerless and the disenfranchised, and have taught us to speak out when we see injustice. There are now numerous ways that we, as the bearers of our religious heritage today, can speak and act from our tradition. We need not make a trip to Madison or sign a petition, though those actions are admirable and encouraged. As we observe our day of rest from labor over these next 24 hours, let us each ponder how we can share our Jewish values about the fair treatment of workers with those who would deny them. Let us commit ourselves to act and to speak out about the injustices that could face our state if we are not heard.

Published: 3/01/2011

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