In August, some business owners in San Francisco got sick of things as they were. Amazingly, the Castro Merchants Association sent a letter to San Francisco city officials saying their members plan to stop paying taxes if the city does not do more to address burglaries, vandalism, people with behavioral health problems and unhoused people camping on the sidewalks in front of businesses and residences. “If the city can’t provide the basic services for them to become a successful business,” said Dave Karraker, co-president of the association, “then what are we paying for?”
This resistance appears to have quietly ended, sadly without much happening; it is reminiscent of an incident in July of 1846, when Henry David Thoreau of Massachusetts was approached by an official about paying six years of delinquent taxes. Citing his opposition to the Mexican-American war and slavery, Thoreau refused; he was arrested and jailed. He meant to remain in jail, and was disappointed when, after he had only spent one night there, somebody—likely his aunt—paid his taxes for him and he was released. (In today’s US, one in jail for delinquent taxes would not be released upon the payment of those taxes.) The experience had a lasting effect on Thoreau, and two years later, he delivered a talk that he later printed under the title Resistance to Civil Government. Today, it is typically published under the title On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, and we highly recommend it.
These are small sparks in a vast ocean of rule-following, and a similar scene unfolds in our parashah. After the pharaoh’s speech, the first thing that happens is that the Jews are assigned שרי מסים—which sounds an awful lot like the government hiring 87,000 new IRS agents. (The direct translation of מס is “tax.”) The Torah records no response from the Jews, other than that they build two cities for the government. Further rules encroaching on their liberties similarly appear to be followed. It is only when the king (for the Torah does not use the word “pharaoh” here) seems to approach two midwives personally that we see any sign of quiet resistance. As we mentioned last year, they are the only people in this section who have names in the text.
Next we read about the birth of Moshe, and his family’s quiet resistance to the regime. It is a weak resistance that does not seem to be getting far, but that is precisely when God (Who is not mentioned in this section at all) steps in and creates a miracle, and the small resistance takes hold.
The result is Moshe growing up in the royal palace, in contact with his family, and attempting to forge a connection with his people. But when Moshe stands up for a member of his people and comes to others with an idealistic call for unity, those meekly following the new rules start defiantly asking him who put him in charge; he finds little gratitude and much judgment for resisting the system. This terrifies him. His words אכן נודע הדבר, generally interpreted as “my act of resistance is known,” could also be interpreted as “now I know why they are slaves.”
In today’s America, there was some bluster about the hiring of 87,000 new IRS agents, but in the end, all those blustering continued to quietly follow the law. When Biden signed into law a bill mandating that new cars have systems built in that would allow police to remotely stop them, most people did not even hear about it. Inflation caused the citizenry immediate pain, but we have not heard of a single person state an intention to not pay taxes as a result. Government actors may do anything they want, but as for us, this is the law.
Between January 2020 and November 2022, Twitter Trust and Safety chief Yoel Roth exchanged over 150 E-mails with the FBI. Many were lists of Twitter posts the FBI was requesting be taken down as “election misinformation”; the lists were extensive, and included joke tweets from accounts with very few followers. This is a strong indicator that there was a lot of taxpayer money being spent on combing through Twitter and requesting censorship. And conservative talk show host Steve Deace claims that Twitter was the platform that censored him the least during this time.
“We’re at the point now [where] conspiracy theories [are] just news that haven’t been confirmed by mainstream sources yet,” he says. “It’s what happens when too much power…gets concentrated in the hands of too few…. This is a tale as old as time in humanity. We’ve been here; there’s nothing new under the sun; just new people under the sun who haven’t seen it yet.”
About America, Deace still maintains that “[t]here is something unique in the American DNA…there’s an echo of that legacy, culturally—that iconoclastic ‘we go our own way and you go your own way[;] as long as you don’t get in our way, cool; you get in our way, we will crush you.’ There is still some of that. Now, that light is dying. It’s flickering.” But he insists that there remains a salvageable remnant.
Deace’s words are not always very carefully chosen. When saying “you get in our way,” he, of course, means violations of rights. His point is that America was free because Americans used to resist tyranny. As for Americans today, Deace is getting close to saying “now I know why they are slaves.”
On the early parshiot of Vayikra, we have written multiple times about tum’ah as a lack of freedom. Midrashim famously state that the Jews in Egypt sank to the 49th level of tum’ah, and had to be rescued early because had they reached the 50th, all would have been lost. Moshe jumps to that conclusion too early and departs Egypt, intending to make a new life for himself without his people; Steve Deace is trying hard not to jump to that conclusion about his.
One of our morning blessings is אוזר ישראל בגבורה. May God give us the strength to calmly discern when to keep our heads low, obey, and protect our families; and when to resist. Staying too far on the side of caution is rapidly degrading the US. Let it be a lesson for us that this גבורה is indeed necessary.