Moses The Negotiator

In Exodus, Moses kept asking the Pharaoh for more. It’s a good thing he did.

This short piece was originally written as a drash for the week of Parashah Bo.

This week’s Torah portion is the tail end of the long list of plagues brought down on Egypt – or mitzrayim, our personal “narrow place” – as the Israelites, led by Moses, continuously ask for their freedom.

Though Pharaoh is famous for saying “no” each time, it’s not completely true. Even as far back as the frogs, the second plague, he begins to offer small concessions. When Pharaoh asks for the frogs to be removed, he says: do this, and the Israelites can make a sacrifice to their God, even if they aren’t allowed to live free lives.

He expands on this offer when Egypt is attacked by vermin: you can even leave Egypt for a short time to make a sacrifice in the desert, but you cannot be free.

In this week’s portion, we begin to see the plagues having a real effect. By the time darkness has covered Egypt, the Pharaoh is actually ready to let the Israelites and their children go! However, he refuses to allow them to take their livestock and thus, their livelihood, and Moses, knowing that certain death would await them in the desert without their cattle, tries again for a better deal.

So when Pharaoh says: you and your children may go, but the cattle will stay, Moses responds: not only will the livestock come with us, but YOU will give us something extra to sacrifice to God. At this point he’s not just asking for the mercy of freedom from slavery, but for the justice of reparations. And although it takes the worst plague of all to finally convince the Pharaoh, the deaths of all the first-born Egyptians, in the end the Israelites are given what they asked for.

I think there’s something in that. As Jews, we sometimes feel as if we are living at the outskirts of society. We have all been exposed to some form of antisemitism in our lives, big or small. Often, we are treated as if we are strangers in our own countries; like our secret loyalty to each other trumps everything else. But we are fighters, lovers of justice, staunch organizers, and, like Moses, excellent negotiators. We no longer fight only for the freedom of our people, but for the freedom of all humankind. It is the ultimate mitzvah.

For me, the lesson of this portion is that we must fight for continual, incremental changes. If Moses had only asked once for his people to be free, they would never have been freed. If he had given up and accepted the first few offers, they would never have been freed. Even if he had accepted the merciful offer to release the Israelites but without giving them any way to sustain themselves, they likely would have died in the desert. When we push for change, we are sometimes given half a victory, or a quarter-victory. We must never settle for less to avoid making waves, or become complacent just because things could be worse. We need justice, not just mercy. This is a powerful message from Moses, in a world where many of us ask for only the bare minimum; where we are afraid of inconveniencing others by being ourselves.

It’s also a funny contradiction from the same people who will, in just a few short weeks, be singing DAYENU, our affirmation that any small victory would have been enough. But why not? We are full of contradictions. We are grateful, but we need more. If we are wise enough, we will ask for what we need. And if we are strong enough, we will keep asking.

Can Aliens Be Jewish?

Are aliens made in the likeness of God? Could they convert?

This short piece was originally written to inspire a discussion at Shavuot.

When the aliens first arrived, there was total chaos. We’d all woken up that morning, secure that we were the only sentient species in the galaxy, and by noon there was a ship the size of Texas hovering over the southern hemisphere. By dinner time, they had sent a message to every radio station, in a dozen different languages. They were refugees, their star was long-gone, and they needed a home. They breathed oxygen, you see, and it was in short supply on every planet but ours. We argued endlessly over what to call them, and there were plenty of good suggestions, but the only thing that ever stuck was “alien,” so that’s what I’m going to call them here. 

Human beings are excellent at coping, so over the next five years, we coped. The aliens moved in, but mostly in the very big cities. Life carried on, especially in little communities like this. We have our own ways of doing things, and not even visitors from space are going to change that.

So there I was, five years after aliens had landed, the office admin for a normal Temple just like this one. I was emailing back-and-forth with a potential convert, trying to organize a time to meet up and discuss what was calling her to Judaism. We’d just arranged the where and when, and her last email ended with – like it was nothing – “By the way, I’m an Alien.” 

The Alien arrived right on time, and I let her into the office to sit with me. She was eight feet tall. She had four arms. Her body was like white roots twisted together. Her head was a ball of burning blue plasma, with one great big eye visible in the center. Her name was Ufa-fsh-kiki, reminiscent of flashes of fire and puffs of smoke, but she charitably told me that I could call her Ufa. 

“Ufa, can you tell me why you’re here?”

Ufa said, “I want to be Jewish. Some days I feel like I am already Jewish, but that it isn’t fully realized.” When she talked, the fire engulfing her face moved back and forth. “I went to another synagogue six months ago, but they wouldn’t teach me.”

“They didn’t do conversions?” I asked.

“They said that I was not made in the likeness of God!”

I was a little afraid that her licking flames might reach out and start devouring the books on the shelf behind her. “We’ll teach you, but some people will still think that. What are you going to say to them?” 

“I will say, has God not appeared as a burning bush?” She drew herself up proudly. 

I liked Ufa already, from our emails, but I knew that if she was going to make it as the only Alien at our Temple she was going to have to argue her case. “Well, Genesis said that humankind was made from earth, and that God breathed life into it. Were you made from the same stuff?”

“Yes, precisely. Dirt is full of nitrogen, and what is breath, if it isn’t oxygen and carbon dioxide? So what is fire, if it isn’t dirt with life breathed into it? Weren’t the elements present at the revelation on Mt. Sinai?”

“I suppose they must have been,” I said, amused.

Ufa continued. “I am just a stranger in your land. I am coming to you to join your people, exactly as the other Aliens have joined the human people… what I need from you is not logical, but conversion rarely is. Maybe it is the way of intelligent life to make choices that are illogical but good.” 

I had to admit that Ufa had made her case well. She struck me as someone who was definitely making her own choices, even if I couldn’t entirely understand. “OK,” I said, getting to my feet. “Let’s sign you up for some classes. The Rabbi is going to like this.” 

“One last thing,” the alien objected. I looked at her, afraid that whatever she had to ask was very serious. 

“Does it still break Shabbat if I can’t help kindling a flame?” She gestured to her own head with two of her four arms.

“Well, Ufa, you’ll have to talk it over, but I bet God will understand.”