Rabbi Allan’s Friday Message: January 26, 2024
I have always appreciated how the Torah guides us as to what is right and wrong – how to find
our internal holiness and how to live morally and ethically in the world around us.
However, we are also taught that “right or wrong” are not absolute terms. Our current Torah
readings – about Moses and Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues – offer a troubling reminder that we
can also be mired in moral ambiguity. Moses and Pharaoh, each “created in God’s image”
according to our creation story, are involved in an epic battle. One is tasked by God to push for
his people to be freed from slavery, while the other – a God-figure in his own religion – seeks to
maintain his empire and his way of life. Each sees themselves as “right” and the other as
“wrong.” Then, the ten plagues triple down on the murkiness of right and wrong, bringing
devastating physical, economic, and emotional harm and finally widespread death into the
homes and lives of millions unsuspecting Egyptians…in support of a very moral right for a nation
to be liberated from slavery.
This story has always been troubling within our community and even at our Passover seders
because as human beings, we simply can’t look at the joy of our exodus without also truly
seeing the incredible harms we have caused. Does the end justify the means? Does the means
justify the end? And how we answer this deeply troubling question about a distant historical
will depend on our worldviews, our upbringings and personal histories, our personal politics,
our levels of empathy, and even our generational label.
Today, we are asking ourselves exactly the same questions – all with no “correct” answer – as
the Torah story plays out in eerily similar ways today in Israel in the Middle East. The “easy”
morally right and wrong answers in the immediate aftermath of October 7 now slide, three
months later, into a moral mess that is not about Israel vs the world, but also by where we
stand, often in anger and frustration, on so many internal issues within Israel itself. Each of us
can’t help but be torn by these issues.
Recently, a young congregant posed exactly the right question about our Temple: As a
community and as a congregation, can Temple Shalom hold all these differences? Are we a safe
place to sit and talk about these things? And how? My surprisingly short answer is “yes.”
I tend to think that the Torah tells stories intentionally, for the lessons behind them. The story
of the ten plagues is not only about our liberation from slavery and the birth of a new nation. It
also offers a truism about life then and life now: Moral ambiguity is a real thing. Life is
complicated and filled with competing narratives. We did escape slavery, but left wreckage
behind us. And as to who “wins,” it may well depend on who is telling the story, and how we
interpret and reprioritize all these moral “rights and wrongs” and often many times in a single
So, we live with ambiguity and unclear answers, always have and always will. I am reminded
that our ancient rabbis argued all the time about the same words of the Torah. But they chose
to record their arguments and didn’t declare winners, knowing that each opinion might hold
sway at different points in the future. And they sat again with each other the next day. And this
is what we can do, what we must do. We talk, and we appreciate that we have different
viewpoints and we respect our differences.
Our synagogues are our sanctuaries. Period. These are not places where we judge each other
for holding contrary views, politically or religiously or otherwise. We talk with rather than at.
We can also ask each other, safely, to stop talking. We allow for safe space, with an
appreciation that none of us has been blessed with perfect answers. We can be sad and angry
but we can also seek answers or solace or comfort, if not in words then in thought or prayer or
meditation, always the more powerful when we do so in community rather than alone.