We Are All Ukrainians

Standing Up and Speaking Out Against Today’s Pharaohs

Our Torah tells us this past week, as we approach the end of the Book of Exodus, that Moses gathers all the people together—using the word, Va’Yakhel, which shares the same root with the word Kehillah, a sacred community—first to remind the people about the sanctity of Shabbat and our responsibility to rest on that day, celebrating a day to rejoice in our freedom, to cease our work, only as free people can.  Quite a contrast with where we started the Book of Exodus, when we were all enslaved to the brutal pharaoh! And then Moses invites everyone to share in the creation of the Mishkan, a holy dwelling place for God’s presence in the camp, by contributing freewill gifts. Moses realized then what we still know to be true today: Together we are stronger than apart! We can accomplish so much more when we are a united community! Our labors will now no longer be for a tyrant and dictator, but joyous and holy gifts. Bible scholar Ellen Davis observes the Israelite people’s move from crushing laborers to exalted co-creators this way:
“[They went from] perverted work, designed by Pharaoh to destroy God’s people…[to] divinely mandated work, designed to bring together God and God’s people, in the closest proximity possible in this life.” [The Heart of Torah, Shai Held Vol. 1 p. 213]

Rabbi Shai Held says it so well in his commentary, The Heart of Torah (ibid.):

“At the beginning of Exodus, God’s people are enslaved to a false god; by the book’s end, they have been liberated to serve the real One. The king of Egypt is not just a brutal taskmaster; he is a brazen and delusional despot: ‘My Nile is my own,’ he declares [according to the Book of Ezekiel], ‘I made it for myself. For Pharaoh, grandiosity and cruelty go hand in hand.”

I was immediately struck by the startling parallels between the actions of the Pharaoh so many years ago and the outrageous belligerence exhibited just this past week as Putin directed a heartless attack against Ukraine, which has sent shock waves throughout the world. Putin like the Pharaoh is cut from the same cloth and has demonstrated to all the world that he is a “brazen and delusional despot!” A tyrant who must be vigorously countered and opposed.

What could powerful Putin actually have to fear from his freedom-loving neighbors in Ukraine? What threat could they truly pose to such a dominant power as Russia that Putin would have to strike them with such cruelty and violence?  Was it just a greedy land grab? An insatiable appetite for more and more power and dominance? I actually think that the writer Rebecca Solnit has put her finger on the truth behind this attack against Ukraine and all who cherish freedom and democracy. She notes that Putin’s greatest fear in Ukraine is in fact their secret weapon—a democratic society right on Russia’s border where the people have far more freedom and liberty than the Russian’s enjoy. This is terribly threatening and he is compelled, beyond any rational motives, to crush this reminder of what his own people don’t have. He can’t bear to have this beacon of freedom beckoning his own people and shining a bright light on all that his people lack.

As Leonid Brezhnev was reported to have once said to Golda Meir when she asked him, “Leonid, why don’t you just let those who want to leave Russia go already?” “Golda, Golda,” he replied, “I see you just want to be alone with me!”

A dictatorship is no match for the blessings of democracy and freedom. Given the opportunity, most people will vote with their feet and always head towards the light. And this is how all tyrants react to the threats of democracy, they must shut it down, they must eradicate the lure, the promise and hope. We can see this even in our own country with those who try to suppress the free access to voting in elections. Our tyrants of today know that if people are given free choice they, the tyrants, will quickly be out of business.

So, at this critical moment, we must come together as a holy community to raise our voices for freedom and democracy. Wherever tyrants and Pharaohs attempt to enslave and repress, we must recognize that they are attacking all of us. Today, we are all Ukrainians! And we must stand with the Ukranian people. If we remain silent, as President Zelenskyy of Ukraine says, soon these tyrants will come knocking at our door. So let us come together to dedicate ourselves to the preservation and celebration of freedom and to work to build a world that will be a fitting dwelling place for a freedom-loving God, a God who demands the dignity of all people everywhere, and who calls us to work for peace.

Rabbi David Gelfand shared this prayer:
War has begun and people are hungry and dying.
We ask for Your protection, O God, for the citizens of the Ukraine
and their neighbors who have opened their doors –
Hungary, Poland and Romania, among others, for safe passage. 
May this violence be diffused.
May our leaders respond with wisdom and unity,
as we hold the people of the Ukraine in our hearts. Amen.

I hope you will join me in this mitzvah of supporting the people of Ukraine through our Reform Movement or through Jewish Family and Children Services in San Francisco, IsraAid, or HIAS, or the International Rescue Committee, which is working on the ground in Poland to help displaced families . Or, consider donating to any NGO of your choosing.

Together we can make a difference!

Rabbi Greg