Parashat Bo features the four famous words, "let my people go,” a refrain for countless communities seeking freedom. In this episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, Rabbi Jacobs discusses some of those communities, and how the Israelites' fight for liberation inspired and fueled their movements.
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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism offers a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about ten minutes or less. Some weeks, he's joined by a special guest, and some weeks he just shares his own perspective, but "On the Other Hand" always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, episode 104, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Bo. He wonders what it means to fight for just what you believe in, and who might be standing up there with you?
[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Bo, the dramatic parashah that comes towards the showdown between Pharaoh and Moses, and the last three of the plagues are enumerated. And we have in this Torah portion one of the most powerful phrases in all of Jewish history gets picked up obviously in the wider culture. "Shlach et ami." Let My People Go. And of course, "Let My People Go" has been a refrain for many people trying to liberate their own community from the bonds of enslavement, the bonds of idolatry. But I want to particularly think about the Soviet Jewry movement, in particular, that had the banner for almost every rally, "Let My People Go." And of course, many of us are familiar with the period because we grew up in that period, in the 70s and the 80s, when a focus of the wider Jewish community was to try and win freedom for all the Jews in the Soviet Union. I remember my friends in rabbinical school who would go right before Pesach and smuggle in matzah and haggadot. And that there was a whole program to support the Jews, particularly the dissident Jews in the former Soviet Union, and then to publicly and regularly protest so that we could win their freedom.
I think particularly of Natan Sharansky, who became emblematic of the whole cohort, the whole community that had been really enslaved. And if you know the story of Natan Sharansky, a brilliant individual who was raised in Ukraine and found himself arrested in 1977 for the crime - allegedly - of treason and spying on behalf of the United States. And he was imprisoned in very brutal conditions, often in solitary confinement in the Siberian gulag, and his personal narrative of how he survived - truly, one of the most memorable and inspiring books I've ever read, "Fear No Evil." I wanted to think about the way in which he won his freedom. Remarkably he had [the support of] thousands of people around the world.
And I remember, I was a young staff member at Camp Swig in Northern California, one of our UHC camps that was a incubator for Jewish leaders. And one week we were told that Avital Sharansky would be visiting, and she wanted to come speak. Her husband was in Soviet prison and she was campaigning around the world for his release. And she came and I was told that -- we were all told on staff that she would speak in English, she speaks beautifully in English, and we had all of the press from Northern California there, and she got up to speak -- and she started speaking Hebrew.
And the director of the camp looked at me like, get up there, because I was leading the Hebrew-speaking part of Camp Swig, and I stood next to her trying to translate her words. Her words were not hard to translate, but the emotion that she spoke with was so unbelievably powerful and impossible to convey in translation. But what she said, in essence, was "My husband is imprisoned for the mere crime of wanting to be Jewish. So I want to speak to you today in Hebrew, because that's the language of our Jewish people." Well, it turns out he did win his freedom, because so many rose up and fought for his freedom. But amazingly, it was really President Ronald Reagan imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to let first Natan Sharansky, Avital Sharansky's husband, go free -- which he did.
And then when Sharansky was only out of the former Soviet Union and was already beginning a new life in Israel, and [in] the fall of 1986, he knew that Gorbachev was coming to Washington, and he came and tried to rally the Jewish Committee to have a huge protest on the Mall in Washington, D.C. And every Jewish leader said "Natan, you can't do it. We're not going to get people, people who show up. It's brutally cold in December, and it'd be better not to do it than to have a small turnout." Natan, not to be dissuaded, said "We're going to we're going to stand our ground.".
Because of the force of his unbelievable personality, 250,000 people came. And when President Reagan the next day was meeting with Gorbachev, President Reagan said -- and I quote -- "Yesterday, I had 250,000 people in my backyard saying 'Let My People Go.' Until you do what they want, nothing will happen." Amazingly, amazingly. And Sharansky got up at that big rally. He said, "The Soviets have to know that no missiles and tanks, no camps and prisons can extinguish the light of the candle of freedom." And that has echoed not only in my ears, but in the entirety of -- not just the Jewish people, but all those who love freedom.
And I have had the privilege over the last few years to work closely with Natan Sharansky trying to create the egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall. I remember the first time I met with him in his office. I brought him a picture of my translating for Avital Sharansky at Camp Swig, and he was so taken by the photograph and by the youthful Avital, and then at the end of our first meeting, he said "Well, let's take a picture." Well, I happened to be 6'4"...and Natan Sharansky's not the tallest person in the world. And we stood next to each other and the photographer said, "I think would be better if you both sat down. Rabbi Jacobs is just a wee bit taller," and I said to Natan, "I may be taller, but my friend, you have the stature of a giant." And that has been the case.
I remember I was with Natan and the Jewish Agency in Kiev -- which of course, he is a native of Ukraine, and we were on a boat cruising down that Dnieper River, the main river in Kiev, and we had a meeting where we were talking about our next move to win this egalitarian space of the Western Wall -- a small group of us. And I said to Natan, "Natan, we're missing the tour guide [who] is telling us all about the Ukrainian villages that we're passing by!".
And Natan said, "I can summarize it very quickly." He said, "You see over there?"
"That's a village where they came to kill our people. You see that village over there? That's a village where they came to kill our people. You see that one?" He said, "I've now summarized the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine, and now you all understand why Israel is our home and why we fought and continue to fight for the freedom of our people." I tell you this story "Let my people go" because it was such an amazing moment of Klal Yisrael, of the entirety of the Jewish people standing up for the entirety of the Jewish people, [and] that feels like a challenge for us today as well.
But as we tell the story of the ancient "let my people go" and Moses saying to Pharaoh shelach et ami, we know that didn't just happen once in Egypt, it has happened in a number of Egypts where our people have lived over these centuries, and we can know that leaders of courage like Moses and like Natan -- and I'll also put in that same breath Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. People who had the courage to go beyond what others thought their leadership limitations were and to fight for the freedom of others. So I hope that all of us listening to the podcast today won't just hear the ancient story of the Israelites in Egypt in the fight for freedom and say, oh yes, that happened long ago. It happens today, it happens tomorrow. And who knows, you may be the next Moses the next Natan, the next Avital, or the one who can be that freedom fighter. And also the one who says "we're going to have a rally even if everyone says we can't, when everyone says we're not going to get the people"-- to have that kind of courage that Natan has. And I'll just conclude by saying "Let My People Go" also means Let My People worship. That's the second part -- v'yaavduni -- that the biblical text says, that we could worship God in all of the ways in which Jewish people worship, as traditional Jews as non-Orthodox Jews, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular -- let's make sure that the freedom, once we've, in a sense, extricated ourselves from the bondage of Egypt or the former Soviet Union, that we are able to live in the freedom and the pluralism and the diversity which is today's Jewish life.
[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you like what you heard today and we hope that you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.
Until next week -- l'hitraot!