Parshat Bo: Where Conviction and Convict Meet

Parshat (Portion) Bo: Where Conviction and Convict Meet

This past weekend I saw The Post; an amazing film chronicling the Washington Post in its efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers. If you recall, the Pentagon Papers were categorized as top secret documents about the war in Viet Nam. More accurately, they documented how various administrations misled the public into believing the war was winnable. After an injunction prohibited the New York Times from publishing the Papers (on the grounds of national security); the Post boldly ignored the prior injunction and published the Papers in the name of our First Amendment. By doing so, the Post jeopardized its reputation and future. Deciding whether or not to publish was an agonizing decision for the Post. Aside from the real possibility of self-destruction; the paper’s leadership faced imprisonment for revealing national secrets. Eventually, the Supreme Court affirmed that the right of a free, independent press took precedence.

Despite opposition from individuals within the newspaper; the Post stuck to its deeply rooted convictions. Had the court deemed otherwise, the Post hierarchy might have been convicted of treason and imprisoned. In the end, the newspaper stood its ground; willing to risk imprisonment, reputation, decreasing circulation and financial instability for the sake of a greater principle.

Standing up for principles may sometimes create a thin line between expressing conviction and becoming a convicted felon. Over the past century many, bold political activists have risked imprisonment or worse, to defend human rights wherever those rights were denied or violated. Political activism however is not a modern phenomenon. We learned the power of courageous activism in the Exodus story about two Egyptian midwives; who ignored Pharaoh’s command to kill first born Hebrew babies. Likewise, we applauded the courage of Pharaoh’s own daughter; who spared Moses instead of revealing his true identity. Finally, in this week’s Torah portion Bo we appreciate the conviction of Moses; who refused to be intimidated by a Pharaoh, who threatened to kill him unless he became scarce and invisible. Pharaoh’s scare tactics failed miserably. In the end, it was Pharaoh himself, who violated his own threat by summoning Moses one last time (after the tenth plague). Moses dismissed Pharaoh’s threat; in his effort to liberate b’nai yisrael Moses will not be deterred. No lurking imprisonment or death penalty would discourage him.

Moses and the Washington Post are forever linked through the value of conviction; and a passion for maintaining that conviction no matter what the consequences. In terms of the Post: During the Vietnam era many people willingly risked their careers and their futures to protest what they believed was an unjust war in which too many lives were sacrificed. As Moses jeopardized his future for the sake of his people; the Post jeopardized both its future and the freedom of its leadership to preserve First Amendment rights.

This past week, the White House issued a statement belittling and dishonoring people, who live in economically challenged nations. The statement was intentional; no apologies, emendations or re-interpretations necessary. The statement reflected the me-oriented character of its author; having no legitimate connection to any political party or ideology. Many Americans and media outlets alike have stepped forward to repudiate that statement; as well as to protect and defend the rights of many honorable immigrants who have brought tremendous credit to our nation. People are speaking out with deep conviction.

Each of us has the right to pursue a life which will bring us relative comfort and satisfaction. Yet, there are times when pursuit of comfort must take a back seat; times when we need to take some risk for a greater good. At those times, we are obligated to make our voices and opinions heard; when the global consequences of remaining silent and afraid are more severe than the personal consequences for speaking out. Conviction takes precedence…

When confronting the fury and wrath of a powerful Pharaoh; Moses did not back down. When confronted by the threats of a powerful government, the Post did not back down-and inspired other organizations to follow suit. Granted, we have to be selective when expressing such conviction; but in those circumstances we will be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and admire the individual we see…

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Klayman