Rabbi Judith Schindler
Going Back to Egypt
Interfaith Service Calling for the Repeal of HB2 (4/24/16)
Myers Park Baptist Church
I was in Egypt once for Spring Break when I went to Tel Aviv University. It was definitely a foreign world. On one hand I was overwhelmed, Cairo had traffic beyond anything I had ever seen, I didn’t speak Arabic, and I was told not to drink the water or eat fresh vegetables as they would be hard for a foreigner’s digestive system. And on the other hand I was awed, the ancient relics I saw, the ancient citites I visited, and the modern vibrancy and culture were profoundly impressive.
This week in the Jewish world, we are told to go back to Egypt – not modern Egypt but ancient Egypt. This week is the holiday of Passover. Jews around the world spent our weekend nights, Friday and Saturday evening sitting around seder tables and welcoming the holiday through a ritual we call the seder. For nearly two thousand years, our ancestors have engaged in an elaborate meal where we sit around tables for hours with friends and family and food and recall our historic Exodus from Egypt.
As we open the narrative capturing our movement from servitude to liberation we read an ancient statement from the Mishnah: B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mi-Mitzrayim. In every generation a person should see themselves as having gone forth from Egypt. Commentators teach that the Hebrew word mitzrayim means a narrow place.
On this Pesach, it doesn’t take much to imagine ourselves being in a narrow place. For this holiday, we find ourselves not in the narrow place of Egypt but of North Carolina.
One month ago, our North Carolina legislature passed a law that Reverend Dr. Barber labelled not House Bill 2 but Hate Bill 2.
Our city spent a year putting together a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance that represents the best practices in the nation.
Our State legislature hastily (and in some cases hatefully) put together a bill that is the worst in the nation, spending $42,000 bringing our legislators back to Raleigh for a special session and allowing only 30 minutes to debate it.
North Carolina has become a narrow place that legislates people out.
As part of the Passover seder, the youngest child asks four questions about the ritual recalling our journey from servitude to liberation. “Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol halaylot – why is this night different from all other nights?” the child asks.
This year, many of us to our seders asked an additional four questions about HB2.
Mah nishtanah hachok hazeh m’kol hachukim? Why is this law different from all other laws?
Why is this law different from all other laws? North Carolina’s HB2 takes away power from the people. It takes away the rights of local authorities to create their own antidiscrimination ordinances, to raise the minimum wage to a living wage in their counties and to pass more progressive policies.
Why is this law different from all other laws? North Carolina’s HB2 writes discrimination into our State structure. This law nullifies a 1977 State Law Protection that allows employees to file lawsuits against their employers for all forms of discrimination including race, religion, national origin, age, sex or handicap. This law leaves our trans brothers and trans sisters vulnerable forcing them to enter the bathroom of the gender noted on their birth certificate rather than the gender with which they identify.
(It is interesting to note that there is not one incident where a transgendered individual has entered a bathroom and committed a crime yet there are many incidents where Senators have committed crimes in public restrooms).
Why is this law different from all other laws? Because this law takes us back in time… from the New South to the Old South, to one that supports the rights of some building upon the oppression of others.
Why is this law different from all other laws? Because this law has caused businesses and musicians and conferences to turn away from our state… PayPal in Charlotte, Bruce Springsteen in Greensboro, perhaps the NBA 2017 All Star Game or even the NBA and our Hornets themselves. And more events cancel every single day.
In every generation a person should see themselves as having gone forth from Egypt.
Our role as people of faith to lead our community forward from Egypt to create a more inclusive State of North Carolina.
When Moses was intent on leading the Israelites slavery to freedom, and the plagues were overwhelming the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s heart began to soften.
After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh said, “You can go and worship your Lord with the men,”
But Moses refused to leave in order to serve God without the young and the old, without their sons and their daughters.
After the plague of darkness, Pharaoh said, “You can go and worship your Lord with the men, women and children.”
But Moses refused to leave to serve God without the flocks and herds.
Last year, our Charlotte Ordinance could have passed if it had left the transgender community behind, but our council members who understand and valued inclusion refused.
Last week, Virginia’s Fourth Circuit Court ruled in favor of transgender students having the right to be treated in accordance with their gender identity, but for us that is not enough. We could breathe easy and give up our fight, but we will not.
Like Moses, those of us opposed to HB2 will not leave anyone behind.
We will not leave the transgender community behind,
We will not leave the broader gay and lesbian community behind,
We will not leave the working poor behind,
We will not leave the elderly, or the disabled or any victim of discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or sex behind.
We will not stop our protest until the entire law is repealed.
We will not allow the hearts of those who lead our state to become hardened
and legalize closed doors to human rights.
We call for open political process where laws can been appropriately read and debated to ensure they are ethical and constitutional before they are passed.
We will keep working and walking till North Carolina is the welcoming and warm state of Southern hospitality that we cherish — providing inclusion and justice for all its citizens.
This is our home.
This is our city.
This is our state.
This is our country.
This is our democracy for which we will pray and fight and work in partnership to create.
Immediately following our seder meal we offer Hallel… Psalms of praise for what we have.
So in the midst of this multi-faith assembly, we offer Hallel, psalms of praise for what we have here.
Hallelu-yah, we say, let us praise God.
Hallelu-yah, let us praise God – for our City Council and Mayor who did the right thing.
Hallelu-yah, let us praise God – for our transgender brothers and sisters who have stood up with courage.
Look to your neighbor and say, Hallelu-yah, let us praise God – for you.
Hallelu-yah, let us praise God – for this interfaith community that cares.
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan taught. “A theology not practiced is like menu without a meal.”
Hallelu-yah, let us praise God – for each of one of you who brings your faith into action.
May we rise from this metaphoric table reflecting on the Egypt in which we all find ourselves and move forward on the journey toward justice.
Unlike my junior year in 1987 at Tel Aviv University, I did not save up my money or just pay my taxes last week to go to a metaphoric Mitrayim – an ancient Egypt that oppresses.
I do not want to be in that ancient narrow Egypt of the Torah
but I will not leave and stop my protest and prayer until others have the rights that I do.
I close with a reading by Michael Walzer that we read as part of our Shabbat evening liturgy as a Reform Jewish community:
Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot.
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land
That the winding way to the promise
Passes through the wilderness
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching
May we hold hands together
May we reach across religious and political aisles to work together
to make North Carolina a state of promise for all.