In "Prince of Egypt," the animated retelling of the story of Moses and the Exodus, Moses, the Egyptian prince, had a disturbing dream after Aaron and Miriam had revealed to him his real identity. In the dream, everyone appeared as figures in colorful wall paintings on a series of Egyptian buildings. In his mind's eye, Moses saw Egyptian soldiers soldiers were relentlessly chasing him. After Moses found a place to hide, he saw the Egyptians rounding up baby boys from the Israelite homes and throwing them into the Nile. He also witnessed one mother, and her young son and daughter, putting a baby in a basket and placing it into the Nile River. The dream ended with Moses imagining that he was falling into an abyss as he tried to escape the soldiers pursuing him. After he woke up, Moses frantically searched nearby for the wall paintings he saw in his dream. He did find stark and terrifying images of soldiers throwing Israelite infants into the river. At that moment, Moses' adoptive father, the Pharaoh Seti, discovered Moses looking at the paintings on the wall. Seti tried to comfort his son, saying, "Sometimes sacrifices need to be made for the greater good. Oh my son, they were only slaves."
Moses looked at Seti's face in horror. His adoptive father had called Moses’ own people "only slaves." The next day, as Moses walked among the Israelites at their work, he realized that he would never see them in the same way again. Now, they were fellow human beings, and even more than that, they were his people. That was the day, as portrayed in the film, that Moses killed one of the Egyptian taskmasters and then fled to Midian.
It is cruel, in and of itself, to say that anyone is "only" anything, where "anything" is a status that the speaker considers inferior and views with disdain.
There are too many contemporary examples, even small ones, of that type of approach of one person to another.
Such statements have, unfortunately, come from candidates for the highest office in our country. One spoke of a senator who had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam and said, "He is a war hero because he was captured. I don't like people who were captured, okay?" Another, while speaking at a school in the Midwest, referred to himself in a self-deprecating way about being the most horrible student in his fifth grade class. Trying to make common cause with students in the audience, he added, "Any fifth graders here? Who's the worst student in your class?" His question led some of the students to point to one particular classmate, causing a moment of needless embarrassment for that child.
To paraphrase..."Only" a prisoner of war - "only" the worst student in class. "Only" a slave. We declare in our prayers that God frees the captive. We pray to God as a gracious giver of knowledge, where dedication to self-improvement can lead any student to a higher level of learning. We believe in a God who redeems the oppressed because of this very story in the book of Exodus. We are commanded to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves, because everyone's life matters.
In the section at the beginning of the portion VAERA that I will read tonight, God made five promises to the Israelites. Those five commitments constitute the basis for the 4 cups of wine plus the cup for Elijah at a Passover Seder. God declared:
"I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant. Say to the Israelites - I am the Eternal One. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm...I will take you to be My people and I will be your God. I will bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
That message should have made the Israelites optimistic about their future. But the Israelites didn't or couldn't hear the message at all. The next phrase in the passage noted that "when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage."
Promises of progress can't take away a sense of being "only," of living a life that doesn't matter, if there is no reason to believe that change is possible.
Shoshana Keats Jaskoll, a woman from the Orthodox community in Israel, lamented, in a recent blog post, about the attitudes that make women "only," that treat them as if their lives don't matter. Orthodox women who try to take leadership positions or to seriously study Jewish sacred texts or to advocate for women's rights in situations related to divorce are criticized by the Orthodox establishment as seeking to destroy the Jewish way of life. Shoshana Jaskoll's article in Times of Israel online ended with this declaration:
"The state of Orthodox Judaism is crumbling, and it is because of women — but it is not their ‘foreign desires’, their shunning of tradition, or their unkosher aspirations, rather it is their lack of options, opportunity, and respect for their true needs that is causing the schism. And the louder you [Orthodox rabbis and leaders] shout about how we are shaking the foundations, the deeper you forge the cracks."
In Israel, the same could be said of progressive rabbis and their congregants, who continue in their struggle to achieve greater recognition. There are Israeli Jews and Arabs who continue to work in common cause to show that they CAN mutually accept one another and demonstrate that their lives matter in a state and region that sorely needs peace and well-being. There are voices on both sides that decry violence, whether random attacks aimed at Jews on Israeli streets or firebombings of Arab homes and attacks on members of that community perpetrated by a small number of Israeli Jews who seek to replace the Israeli government with a new Jewish monarchy.
Throughout the world, including in our own country, polarization continues, where the adjective "only" has become commonplace across the spectrum of ideology and belief. It may be easy to say that it is limited to the extremes on the left and right, but everyone in the big middle is now challenged to find a way to create respectful dialogue and constructive discourse on crucial issues of the day. As much as we might want to say "only" about anyone, it is not in keeping with human decency or with the Jewish tradition. Everyone has a spark of God in them - even those who hate, even those who fail to think before they act in a way that jeopardizes the lives of others, and even Pharaoh, who hardened his heart by virtue of having no compassion for anyone but himself. To remove the perspective of "only" can happen when we work to soften hearts as much as possible for as many people as possible. That is when we would achieve true freedom and peace. And that is point of this entire tale - that the lives of supposedly lowly Israelite slaves mattered to God. And if they mattered to God, then they should matter to earthly rulers and fellow human beings as well.
So may we look around in our congregation, in the greater community, in our country, and across lines that might divide us. May we recognize that we all share the precariousness of being "only" human. We are not perfect, or not yet perfect, but it is our mission to strive for perfection. We can work towards the creation of a world in which everyone can have an opportunity to live a life that matters, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to look forward to the future with the hope of passing through life's challenges with the support of helping hands that can continue God's work of bringing deliverance to every corner of the earth.