This week’s Torah portion tells of the last three plagues on Egypt: locust, darkness, and death. Moses tells Pharaoh that he plans to take his people into the desert to worship their God, and Pharaoh asks who will go with him. Moses replies, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds.” This alarms Pharaoh, who presumes that some mischief is afoot, and he decrees that only the men can go.
This explicit inclusion of young and old, male and female, is unusual, as is Pharaoh’s initial question. Moses has repeatedly said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Wouldn’t that naturally include everyone? Why should Pharaoh ask this, and why now?
I once made my living writing for newspapers and magazines. In that profession, clarifying questions are important; it’s never safe to assume that you know what someone means. It is fascinating what you learn when you ask even the simplest of questions.
Pharaoh asked “Who?” and Moses made it clear to that he intended to keep his community together. Everyone was to leave, regardless of age or gender. Not one soul would be left behind.
It’s easy for communities to become fractured, for people to go off in different directions. Much harder is to stay together and work through the tough times. Knowing the rest of the story, we might well imagine that Moses would have been happy to leave certain troublemakers behind. But his message was clear – we are one people. We will stay together, support each other, argue and fight with each other, but we will do it together.
Today, in a fractured nation, our new president has the same message for Americans as Moses did for the Children of Israel. In his inaugural speech Joe Biden said:
“…the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us, on we the people… This is a great nation. We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far. But we still have far to go. We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.
“… To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
Or, as Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shlomi of blessed memory said, “The only way to get it together is together.”