This week and next we commemorate the values of freedom, justice and liberty.
B’shalach, our Torah reading for this week, celebrates the new-found freedom of the Israelites as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.
In Exodus 15 we read the beautiful Song at the Sea, the poem of praise, thanksgiving and victory which the Israelites sang upon their safe deliverance. “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal. They said:
I will sing to the Eternal, for Adonai has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Eternal is my strength and might;
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him.
The God of my ancestors, and I will exalt him.” (Exodus 15: 1-2)
We remind ourselves every day, twice a day, that we used to be slaves when we recite the “Mi Chamocha” prayer in our daily morning service and evening service. “Mi Chamocha” is actually not a prayer or blessing. The verses are actually taken from this week’s Torah reading: Exodus 15:11 and 15: 18:
“Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!… The Eternal will reign for ever and ever.”
Why do we need to remind ourselves constantly of our servitude?
Both the Torah itself and the later rabbis instill within us the value of historical memory:
“In every generation, one is obligated to see one’s self as having personally left Egypt. As it is said: (Exodus 13:8), ‘And you will tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5)
By reciting Mi Chamocah twice daily, we are reminding ourselves of a few things: 1) we are connected to God in a relationship that is historic; 2) God redeemed us from slavery; and 3) if we needed assistance to be liberated from bondage, then we are obligated to help those who are not yet free as well. Mi Chamocha then is our call to action.
Modern Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel took this obligation very seriously. In one of his important works, he wrote:
“Freedom means more than mere emancipation. It is primarily freedom of conscience, bound up with inner allegiance. The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that “I can act as I desire.” This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction. The will is not an ultimate and isolated entity, but determined by motives beyond its own control. To be what one wants to be is also not freedom, since the wishes of the ego are largely determined by external factors…Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice. Man’s true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends him. Each challenge from beyond the person is unique, and each response must be new and creative… The glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free, and my capacity to be free, but also in the realization of my fellow man’s right to be free, and his capacity to be free.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966)
Heschel was not just a man of thought, a man of words, but a man of deed. In 1965, he marched in the famous march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was his friend and close colleague. “When I marched in Selma, it felt like my legs were praying,” Heschel commented after the march.
Susannah Heschel, AJ Heschel’s daughter, explained this further:
“For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism’s political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.” (Susannah Heschel, “Following in my father’s footsteps: Selma 40 years later”)
The photo below shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the far right, participating in the Selma march. On his left is Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a former Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple (where I began my rabbinate) and long-standing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1943-1972). Both Heschel and Eisendrath worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. fighting against racism, bigotry, hatred and intolerance. They all fought for civil rights and justice.
Therefore, it is not so ironic that we as a Jewish people are celebrating our own historical liberation from bondage, just one week before we, as a nation, observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Martin Luther King, Jr. taught:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Birmingham, Alabama, April 16, 1963).
Dr. King’s words go hand-in-hand with what we learn from our own Jewish tradition:
“In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6)
as well as,
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
We will do justice to our Torah portion this week, B’shalach, and to the memories of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and to all who work to free the captives, when we work to fulfill the following words:
“Let violence be gone; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.” (Gates of Prayer, page 618. Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1975).