Moses at the Burning Bush by James Tissot
"Moses at the Burning Bush" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Impatient for justice? Congratulations — you’re human

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Shemot

Exodus 1:1-6:1


Rabbi: These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming by household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher.

Student: These are the names: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade

Rabbi: Those names are not in the text.

Student: Well, they’re in my heart.  When will the Wise of Chelm do something about these names?

Rabbi: Patience. As the Torah says, Joseph was patient. Joseph is patient with his family. When, after years in Egypt, his brothers, who had done him wrong, suddenly appear before him, he sees his brothers for who they are and acts again and again with deliberation.

Joseph hurried out, for he was growing warm and tender toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went to a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and restrained himself, and he said, “Set out the bread.” (Genesis 43:30-31)

See, be patient. Indeed, the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, d. 1158, France) explains that Joseph “was restraining himself in his heart.”

Student: What if Moses was patient? Look, he says, “A taskmaster beating Israelites.  I’ll look away.”

Rabbi: No. That’s not what happened.

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11)

Student: Right. What if Moses, now a fugitive, sits by the well and watches young women being abused by men. And waits.

Rabbi: No, that’s not what happened either!

They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose and saved them, and watered their flock. (Exodus 2:16-17)

Moses is impatient.

Student: So …  am …  I.

Rabbi: How old are you?

Student: Twenty-three. The same age John Lewis was when he spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. (From Lewis’ speech, Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963)

Furthermore, would you consider that Moses was patient when he saw the Burning Bush?

And the Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:2-4)

No! Many people may have passed the burning bush and paid little notice. Some may have patiently assumed that someone else may put out the fire, or since it did not affect them, why should they care? They dozed off, but not Moses, an impatient man.  He thinks, “I must turn aside to look … why doesn’t the bush burn up?” Here is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. …

Rabbi: Is he a real doctor? I just read in the Wall Street Journal …

Student: Never mind the Wall Street Journal. Listen to this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice … (From MLK’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963)

Rabbi: Might it be better to take social change slowly? Let time heal all wounds?”

Student: And just 10 days before he was murdered in Memphis, Dr. King spoke at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan:

… time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m sad to say to you tonight I’m absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the forces on the wrong side in our nation, the extreme righteous of our nation have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will and it may well be that we may have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people who will say bad things in a meeting like this or who will bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time. (From MLK’s speech “The Other America,” March 14, 1968)

Rabbi: So, Moses did not wait. Is that your thinking?

Student: You taught me Abraham Joshua Heschel. He said at a memorial service at the Jewish Theological Seminary for Martin Luther King Jr., one year after his friend’s assassination: “… to the degree to which we are concerned with our fellow men — and only to that degree — are we human.”

Rabbi: Moses was the most impatient and, at the same time, the most human.

Student: Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at wolfprusan@mac.com.