פרשת שמות, תש״פ
Parshat Sh'mot, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, January 18th, 2020
On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, Freedom Through Bold Action
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Prayer is no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we who rope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and the course which we should choose.”
The great rabbi-philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel carried a Torah as he marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the fight for increased voting rights for African Americans. Whenever he was asked about the march afterwards, Heschel would say, “When I marched in Selma, I was praying with my feet.” Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King prayed with their feet in battles against racial segregation, the Vietnam War, and social policies that perpetuated our nation’s immense wage gap. As we begin the book of Exodus this Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend, we need to be reminded of Dr. King’s and Rabbi Heschel’s message that the Exodus from Egypt cannot just teach us about the freedom enjoyed by the Jewish people. The story of the Exodus from Egypt must teach us about the great need for freedom for all.
It is with great honor and a little bit of nervousness that I talk to you today. I know there are people in this room who have lived here for long enough to have witnessed great changes with regards to civil and human rights here in Shreveport and elsewhere in the South. I can only hope that those positive changes will expand and continue, as our journey into greater equality, equity, and cultural awareness is far from over.
In a comment on our very Torah portion, the medieval rabbi Seforno teaches that God did not afflict the Egyptians with the ten plagues in order to punish them for being Egyptian; rather, it was to show God’s disdain for their actions of oppression and violence. As God creates each human in God’s image, God cares for and finds joy in the success of each and every human Creation, regardless of race, country of origin, or socioeconomic class.
Freedom, in the book of Exodus, does not just mean hooray, we’re out of here! We can do whatever we want! In the book of Exodus, the people Israel gain the freedom to worship God. We gain the freedom to take on the real responsibility of mitzvot, of performing concrete, positive deeds in the world. Once God granted us the freedom of responsibility, we did not yield it perfectly; we worshiped a golden calf in the desert, and we had intertribal warfare when we first entered the Holy Land, and yet, it was crucial that we were still granted that freedom so that we could try to improve upon ourselves and the world around us.
In the modern world, we still have slavery not only in the traditional sense of one person legally belonging to another, but also in the institutions that trap entire classes of people in place, that hold them back from their human responsibilities. In the modern world, we can grant freedom through the expansion of education, through supporting the efforts of our youngest kids, our society’s fastest developing brains, to take on new responsibilities and to shape the world around them as they grow. We can grant freedom through taking a hard look at our criminal justice system, asking if how we treat individuals within the system will contribute to their increased responsibility when back out in among us. In the modern world, we can grant freedom through making sure that our neighbors have the funds, food, and medical resources for them to be able to get up in the morning and focus on the obligations they have towards their families, their communities, and their world. And perhaps most simply, we can cement freedom today through the nature of the gaze we offer to someone who looks different from us, the tone of voice or the choice of words we use. As I taught a couple of weeks ago, the Talmud clearly teaches that my blood is no redder than that of the stranger’s; I must make sure that my actions reflect the respect I am commanded to hold for that stranger.
In our book of Exodus, freedom is not gained through passivity. The women in our Torah portion demonstrate the initiative our people need to get out of Egypt. A couple of midwives, Shifrah and Puah, defy the orders of the most powerful person in their world, the Pharaoh of Egypt, as they refuse to kill the Israelites’ baby boys. A mother and daughter, Yoheved and Miriam, work together to save the illegal baby Moses from being thrown into the Nile to drown. Moses’ wife Tziporah rescues her family by performing a last-minute circumcision and defiantly proclaiming her actions to God. Just as these women carry the story of freedom through immediate action, we too must reflect the Exodus through our constant search for what must be done right now for the sake of freedom. Each and every one of us must wake up each and every day to ask who needs some more freedom in this world, and what can I do today to assure they’ll gain it?
As Jews, we are charged with living each and every day as if we, too, had experienced slavery in Egypt. We are charged with identifying with anyone who has experienced real oppression as deserving of our immediate care. As Jews, we must treat each moment we know another group of people is suffering with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls the “fierce urgency of now.” This week, I ask each and every one of us to come up with one bold action we can do to promote freedom in the life of another human being. From donating to a cause we support to paying a fair wage to speaking out on social media, we each have the ability to pray with our feet on behalf of our fellow human beings. We must not be complacent about the freedom that we have as American Jews - we must fight for the freedom of the rest of America - of the rest of humanity, as well. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said with the words of our prophet Amos, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”