Inaugural Maven: Knockin’ on Pharaoh’s Door
By Annie Lewis
By Annie Lewis
A newly minted Maven apprentice, I sit in the pews of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, as Brian Gelfand and Shawn Shafner orchestrate a translation for multiple generations of Parshat Vaera.
The cantor escorts the Torah around the room like royalty and images of the week’s Inauguration flicker in my mind; the bundled masses, assembled, endless, across the Mall. This Shabbat, in Queens, all in the congregation become the Hebrew slaves on the cusp of sea change.
Moses returns to the land of his birth, to recruit his long-lost brother Aaron for a mission. He notifies him that God has commanded them to confront the Pharaoh, to demand he set the Hebrew slaves free. Moses appeals to his brother to accompany him to Pharaoh’s office to take action. The incredulous Aaron brushes off Moses with his pampered palace upbringing, perceiving the plan as naïve at best. Aaron has been a slave all of his life and has little faith that things can be different. With the chance of change low, and the cost of confronting power high, Aaron prefers to leave things the way they are. As we journey through the parsha, Moses and the community members urge Aaron and one another to imagine the possibility of a better day and to take the leaps of faith to make it happen.
The first aliyah is for those like Aaron, who have doubts. They gather under the shelter of the super-sized Storahtelling talit. For the second aliyah, Maven Shawn calls up to the Torah - the micro-managers, the obsessive compulsives, the control freaks - all those who want things their way. A wave of laughter ripples around the room. People nudge their partners, parents and kids. They giggle and bicker and at last the chosen ones find their way up to the bimah, ready to receive their Torah. The energy in the room shifts and we are there; the story is a mirror for who we are in this moment on this day. After the aliyah, the congregation reasons with Aaron to consider playing a part in the Divine plan:
“You’ve got nothing to lose,” one young woman asserts.
“Now is your chance. The Pharaoh knows Moses,”
“Better get out before the Ottoman Empire comes to power,” an astute student advises.
At last, the wary Aaron has a change of heart, and decides he will speak truth to Pharaoh’s hard heart. However, before he and Brother Moses set out to knock on Pharaoh’s door, Aaron calls for a blessing from all of those in the room who know what it’s like to take leaps of faith, for all those on the verge of making bold moves with unknown outcomes.
After the stories and the blessings, some signs and wonders on Pharaoh’s floor, and the journey of two brothers reunited, the rabbi weaves Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing,” into the Aleinu, a prayer about what is to come.
This Shabbat Vaera, we are part of a nation under new leadership, energized, questioning, bracing ourselves for all that is on the way. I think of the passengers balanced on the wings of an aircraft just two weeks earlier, waiting to cross freezing water. I pray for courage, grateful to a God who still carries us out on Eagle’s wings.
I am grateful to Brian, Shawn and the Forest Hills community members for an experience of revelation. For Torah that is living water, an infinite reflecting pool that meets us where we are, reminds us how far we have come and helps us imagine how we might one day be free.
Ki hem hayenu v’orekh yameinu
For (the words) are our life and the length of our days