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The Moral Obligations of Freedom

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Sermon For Shabbat “Bo” 5777

The Exodus is one of the most breathtaking stories in the entire Torah. Visually spectacular, it is also intensely dramatic, so much so that it has been turned into opera, several Hollywood movies, and at least one musical.

But aside from that, this story really has many important lessons for us even today, more than 3000 years after the events it recounts took place.

Here are some of the lessons I got from it.

First, I learned how easy it is for people to forget—or at least not to learn from—their own history. “A new Pharaoh arose,” the Torah says; one that “knew not Joseph;” who forgot how Joseph had, not too long ago, saved all Egypt from a devastating famine; how, instead, he helped Egypt turn into a world power; and how, along the way, he enriched Pharaoh’s own, private coffers. Forgetting all these contributions, Pharaoh in return, turns the Jews into slaves, persecutes them and ultimately even resorts to genocide. Pharaoh commands that all male Jewish babies be thrown into the Nile River.

Secondly, I learned about heroism. Despite the harsh decrees and cruel oppression, the Jewish People refused to give up. Encouraged by teachers and visionaries like Moses, Aaron and Miriam, the Jews struggled under their burden, yet heroically they held on to their faith, never losing hope that God would eventually redeem them and lead them back to their own land, the Promised Land.

We often think of heroes as men, but in the Exodus story women take their rightful place among the saviors of our people. There were the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who proudly resisted Pharaoh and refused to obey his orders, which they saw as unjust, cruel and inhumane. Then there were also the ones who acted in secret, such as Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who took pity on her child and refused to hand him over to the assassins. There was Miriam, who watched as her baby brother was put in a tiny basket and allowed to drift among the reeds that lined the shores of the Nile River. And there was, of course, the Daughter of Pharaoh, who openly flouted her father’s orders, rescued the baby from the water, and raised him as her own.

Reading between the lines, I understood that there must have been an Underground Railroad, a secret, hidden passageway meant to save Jewish babies; and that Miriam, her mother Yocheved, and even Pharaoh’s daughter were probably part of this secret, sacred alliance

The Ten Plagues—whether you read them literally or as symbolic metaphors—were the means by which God intervened in history, with the result that a new nation was created, one that still lives to this day, the Jewish People.

The Plagues were terrifying then—and are still so today. I remember from my childhood days in Israel when a huge, black cloud of locust descended on the land. They covered up the sky almost completely, causing a huge amount of agricultural damage, before the wind—and us kids going out in the fields, banging pots and other noisy implements—finally drove them out.

When the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” came out nearly two decades ago, I remember seeing it in the theater. As the tenth and final plague, The Death of the Firstborn, was about to be unleashed, in the tense and ominous moments that made you hold your breath in fear and anticipation, suddenly a young child’s voice rose from a few rows behind where I was sitting. “Can we go home now??” the child cried out.

I learned that when God does intervene in history, to rescue the afflicted and uplift the oppressed, God does so with the most terrifying power, power that blows away like so much chaff the most haughty and proud of tyrants.

But if cruelty leads to downfall and destruction, it is compassion that leads to redemption.

Pharaoh’s ultimate defeat was not only due to his tyrannical rule. It wasn’t only that his glory and the glory of his entire civilization were founded on the backs of suffering slaves. It was his lack of pity and compassion. When the Hebrew slaves complained, he increased their burden; when they continued to flourish and increase despite all his harsh decrees, he ordered them killed. Pharaoh watched as children were thrown into the Nile; he didn’t flinch as they flailed in the water; he didn’t blink an eye as their desperate cries grew silent, one by one.

The compassion of the Hebrew midwives infuriated Pharaoh. He was powerless before them. But his ultimate downfall was ensured by his own daughter, who refused to obey his orders, obeying her own heart instead, when she did show compassion, taking pity on one small child and rescuing him from the water. This child grew to be the man who gave us the Ten Commandments and led us to the Promised Land, Moses.

One of the most important lessons of the Exodus story is not to forget. Pharaoh had forgotten Joseph; what we must do now is to remember. It’s important to remember the good times, yes. But we must also remember our past and what we had to endure to remain Jews. Not only because it’s part of our history, but also because it reminds us of our moral obligations. The Torah commands us, “Thou shalt neither trouble a stranger nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Jews have always interpreted this commandment as having compassion for the homeless, for the dispossessed, for refugees and newly arrived immigrants; for those whose rights are all too often infringed upon; who are too often taken advantage of; and who daily face ridicule and disparagement—just as we did, in ancient Egypt and throughout our history.

The memory of slavery and suffering are etched in our minds and souls. And so we become socially and politically active whenever we see taken away the rights of other people, people of different skin color or religion, of a different gender or gender identification, immigrants, refugees, the marginalized of our society.

The key to our existence is memory, and over the many centuries and millennia that have passed since the Exodus, we have not forgotten. Every year, at our Passover seders, we remind ourselves. We repeat the story, one generation retelling it to the next, obeying the commandment we find in this week’s portion, והגדת לבנך, “And you shall speak these words to your children.”

Who knows, perhaps it is for this reason and purpose that we were redeemed by the Almighty, so that we could pick up where God left off, and bring freedom, joy and light to every corner of God’s world.

May we find the faith, the courage and strength to make this broken world whole again, to make it a better place for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the downtrodden, so that we too, along with our children—or perhaps our children’s children—might one day enter the Promised Land just as the ancient Israelites did thousands of years ago.

Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.

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Inauguration Day 2017

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

We live in dangerous times, and rather than bickering or fighting we need to face the many challenges that are before us. Social and cultural changes brought about by high tech and the Internet have stirred up a hornet’s nest of instability and uncertainty. The world is going through climate changes that cause massive flooding on the one hand, and terrible droughts on the other. Health crises brought about by new or rapidly evolving viruses are wreaking havoc, while the cost of cures and treatments continues to rise exponentially.

More than ever before, war and terrorism are endangering the entire civilized world, threatening to set back human progress a thousand years or more.

Wider-than-ever disparity between the super-rich on the one hand, and the poor and dispossessed on the other is threatening nations and societies from within, endangering social stability and raising tensions to unprecedented levels.

For us Jews, too, new dangers loom. Less than ¾ of a century since the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is once again on its vile march. The ancient hatred has erupted into violence throughout Europe, while here, in the US, the ugly rhetoric and familiar signs are appearing everywhere, causing fear and alarm among many who thought they have left those behind, as well as among those of us who have never known fear before. The so-called “Alt Right” is vying with the “New Left” in marginalizing and bullying Jews, while the BDS movement, originally meant as a statement directed specifically at the State of Israel, has proven closely allied with virulently anti-Jewish groups and sentiments.

Yet, today the American Jewish community is largely divided among itself, mostly along political lines, but also along religious differences. You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now, but it doesn’t seem so. We blame ourselves. Some of us accuse Israel for the rising hatred, while others turn against one group or another in scorn and deprecation. All the while, however, we ignore the fact that these existential threats, repeated daily by Iran and its collaborators, as well as by anti-Semites along the entire political and social spectrum, are directed against all Jews, regardless of national, religious or political affiliation.

So today, on this Inauguration Day, as Americans, even though we find ourselves deeply divided along socio-political lines, more than ever we need to stand together, as one people. We may be Jews, Christians, Muslims or of any other religion—or even of no religion at all. We may call ourselves Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. But the differences do not matter. What matters is that we all face the same future, the same problems and the same dangers.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we Jews took a vow: “Never again!” What we meant by that is that we would never again be placed in the position of victims. For some of us, we have used our newfound courage and strength in defense of our national homeland, Israel. Others have turned their attention to other genocides—in Bosnia, Darfur, and the killing fields of Southeast Asia. Some of us raised our fist and fought against hatred itself, wherever we saw it: hatred of African-Americans, of Muslims, Latinos, the GLBTQ community. We fought against discrimination, prejudice and hatred. We engaged in Tikkun Olam, the ongoing sacred task of Creation. We saw redemption possible through advances we made in social justice, education, medicine, technology and the caretaking of the environment.

So while it is true that the 2016 Presidential election was divisive, ugly and demoralizing; and while it is true that many of us are looking with dismay at the possibility that the Great Society we had worked so hard to build over the last 50 years might face dismantling, we must not hide or run away from what still needs to be done. Rather, we must unite our efforts. Rather than turn against ourselves or one another, we must face the challenges by working together, from within. Where we see that changes must be made, let us be courageous enough to make them. Where we need to build up what we see falling apart around us, we must work from within our system to shore up—not through anger, not through violence, but rather by using the powers that the Founding Fathers built into our system. We may be a nation of many colors and many faiths, but we are, after all, “one nation, indivisible;” and our goals are the same today as they were when they were first formulated: “With liberty and justice for all.”

These are high goals, sometimes difficult to achieve; but the methods we have at hand today have proven true throughout the past. Imperfect though it is, our government is a representative democracy. It isn’t our genes or lineage that determine who will lead us—it’s our vision and courage. What our Founding Fathers have given us is the right to change things. We can vote a person in; we can vote them out. We can run for office ourselves. Or we can contact our representatives and let them know what we know, what we need, what we believe. As individuals, each of us can make a difference in our own life. Together, however, we can do so much more. We can affect history itself.

Our courage stems from our faith and our ideals. Our strength lies in our purpose and in our unity. May God bless America, home of the free.

בשלום עמו את יברך יי׳ ,יתן לעמו עוז יי׳ : May God grant God’s people strength; may God bless us all with peace. Amen.