- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

In Exodus 5:1, Moses and Aaron face Pharaoh to deliver their best-known line, "The God of Israel has said, 'Let my people go.' " Yet as much chutzpah as it took our heroes to demand this, Pharaoh's answer has more chutzpah still. "Who is God, that I should listen to God's voice and let Israel go? I don't know from God, and also, I won't let Israel go." …
The scene is almost ironic. Here's two nice Jewish boys representing an enslaved, oppressed, downtrodden community standing in front of the region's most powerful monarch, saying "Cut it out."
We can understand Pharaoh's unwillingness to recognize that the Israelites even had a God. Consider the bitter experience of African-American slavery, where white masters refused to acknowledge that their slaves could pray to the same God of eternity, the God of liberation, as they did.
Finally, Pharaoh's answers in verses four to five show what's really at stake. "Why, Moses and Aaron, are you stirring up the people from its work? Go back to your burdens… . The people of the land are now many, and you would give them rest as in Shabbat from their burdens?" …
The bottom line is that Pharaoh doesn't want to give up any of his wealth. He's happy with the unjust status quo because it benefits him, and so he refuses to budge.
What do we learn from this first staking out of positions between the Israelites and Pharaoh? Remember the line most often repeated in the Torah, some 36 times? "You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, having been strangers yourself in the land of Egypt." This is a powerful comment on the activist nature of Jewish memory. We recall the experience of slavery not to mourn or memorialize, but to ensure that we never become pharaohs ourselves.
Now it's odd, not knowing what would happen, to have prepared the Torah study just before the turning of the year, decade, century, millennium. Of course, the calendar shift would be uppermost in our thoughts, in large part because of all the fears of the Y2K disruptions.
The concerns over Y2K, exaggerated as they were, remind us of the fragility and interconnectedness of our newly globalized world. We have elevated technology to a place in our society formerly reserved for God. Those with a supernatural theology might see the Y2K fears as God saying, "Get to know Me, again."
This same globalized world that gave us concern over computer failures is also an unjust world. We may not directly oppress any "strangers," but we don't even know about our level of complicity. Who made those shoes? How were the fruit pickers treated? On this Shabbat Y2K, we should take stock of our actions, and try to hold ourselves up to the challenge of truly "not oppressing the stranger."
One way we may inadvertently oppress others is through our own overconsumption. Pharaoh didn't want to give up anything of his. Today, we, too, shoot down any vision of a "sustainable" society in which we of comparative privilege are asked to give anything up. Thus, the perennial ranting against high taxes, the unwillingness to ratify the Kyoto treaty on global warming. For the world's present population to enjoy an American standard of living would require four Earths… .
The Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is a time when debts are forgiven, and land replenishes itself… . It is to happen ever 50th year, [so] now in this 2000th year on the common Western calendar, many people of faith have rallied behind "Jubilee 2000," a program of debt relief for developing nations… .
The coincidence of New Year's with Shabbat should make this time doubly meaningful for us. May our New Year's resolutions, including those for sustainability and for liberation, be lasting.

Next week: a sermon by the Rev. Henry G. Brinton at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va.

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