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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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Mah Nishtanah Chanukah

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

At first, what the Greeks offered as replacement was indeed enticing: art, literature, theater, science and, of course, Olympic contests of strength and beauty. But what they failed to take into

account was our typical Jewish obstinacy. With each new oppressive measure that the Greeks enacted, so did our resistance grow. Led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his five sons, the rebellion slowly gained momentum; and despite the tragic loss in battle of Judah-known as The Maccabee-the hammer-the Greek army was ultimately defeated. Jerusalem was liberated, and the Temple, where the Greeks had placed a gold statue of Zeus and whose compound they used as a garrison for their soldiers and beasts, was cleansed and rededicated to God.

Dedication. That is the root meaning of the word Chanukah.

However, the holiday would not become known by this name for many years yet. Three hundred years later, the Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, relying on a couple of earlier histories, still called it “Urim,” The Festival of Lights.

There is a reason for that. The timing of the historical events that Hanukkah celebrates coincided with the winter solstice, the season when ancient peoples used to perform magic rituals, almost all of them involving lights and fires, in the hope of restoring to the sun its full power and strength. In Josephus, as well as the accounts he relied on, the Maccabees marked their victory with seven spears which they stuck in the ground, and to which they attached flaming torches. Those were the “lights” to which the name of the holiday referred in those days.

And why eight days? The Talmud offers two explanations: One had to do with the eight days of dedication of the original Temple—the Tabernacle, which Moses and the Israelites had constructed in the Sinai Wilderness. The other was that this number corresponds to the number of days in the fall pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. The restoration of Temple rituals meant that now Sukkot could be celebrated properly, with all the appropriate sacrifices and celebrations.

So how did the story of the little cruse of oil originate?

The wars of liberation that the Maccabees fought didn’t end with the defeat of the Greeks. Soon after came the Romans, a people whose penchant for cruelty and repression was legendary. By the end of first century, the Romans had not only conquered all of Judea, killing in the process over half a million people; but they also destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple down, leaving intact only the Western Wall. The Jewish People were reduced from a political structure to existence as a spiritual-cultural entity. The Romans replaced the Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, with governors of their own choosing, while the role of the Priests as spiritual leaders was now taken over by the Rabbis.

The dangers of persecution led these ancient teachers to offer a new explanation for Hanukkah. While keeping the original intent and purpose, the holiday would no longer celebrate the military triumphs of our ancestors. Instead, the Rabbis now taught Chanukah as a spiritual victory. Quoting a verse from the prophet Zechariah, אֽוֹת׃בָצְ יְהוָ֥ה אָמַ֖ר אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י יכִּ֣ בְכֹ֔חַ וְלֹ֣א בְחַ֙יִל֙ לֹ֤א—“Not by power, not by might, but by My spirit alone,” the Rabbis de-emphasized military strength in favor of prayer and faith.

It’s not known who first told the story of the small cruse of olive oil that was found with the seal of the High Priest still intact on it. The miracle of the oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights—the time it takes to press fresh olive oil—was innocuous enough to pass the scrutiny of the Romans, yet meaningful enough to sustain our people through the next two thousand years. The story makes its first appearance in the Talmud, some five centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem. By then, hope for Jewish independence had all but disappeared. Survival of Judaism against all odds—though not without great sacrifice—thus became the holiday’s chief and lasting message, while its new official name—Hanukkah—evolved to reflect not physical, but rather spiritual dedication. During good times, the light of the Hanukkah candles danced in the windows and open doorways of Jewish homes. In darker times, the light was hidden deep within, serving to inspire us with its eternal message of hope, unification and redemption.

Today, with Israel once more a political reality, with Jerusalem once more our busy and flourishing capital, Hanukkah carries with it yet one more meaning. Today it reminds us that we need to remain strong not only spiritually, but also physically. A beautiful wildflower grows in Israel. It is called Dam Ha-Maccabeem—Blood of the Maccabees—and legend has it that where it grows, a drop of blood had been spilled in defense of our Land, our People and our Faith. The symbolism of this eternal crimson flower is clear to every man, woman and child.

The light of the candles we kindle in our own chanukioyt—our own Hanukkah menorahs—now extends like a rainbow all the way from our most distant past, through the blessing of the present moment, far into the future. Their many colors remind us of the diversity of our customs and traditions. They remind us of past victories as well as of terrible sacrifices we’ve had to make. Yet they also hold out hope for a bright future, a future that depends not only on God, but also on our own dedication to our people, our land, and our faith.

May the light of our Hanukkah celebrations inspire us to rededicate ourselves as have our people since time immemorial. As one candle’s light joins its fellows to produce a wonderful, great glow, so may we all unite and shine a magnificent light for all the world to see—the light of faith and hope, the light of freedom and joy for all the world to enjoy.

Kein y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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Walking With Abraham, Standing With You

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

On the other hand, Abraham’s belief, which he stubbornly held on to, was that there was only one God, a just and compassionate God who wanted people to be like Him: just and compassionate.

The different beliefs led to two very different—and in many ways opposing—lifestyles. What Abraham was looking for was a place where he could live and worship freely, without fear of persecution.

People have been fleeing persecution, seeking liberty, for as long as humanity has existed. In fact, America was founded upon this principle. The social and political system that was created here is a democracy, guided by the principle that we, the people, have the right to participate in the selection and running of our government. Our democracy enshrines freedoms we hold sacred, holy.

Elections in a system such as ours never result in a unanimous vote. In a democracy, it’s a given that there will be different opinions and dissenting views. Elections are often divisive; all you have to do is look at what’s happening in our country today. A mere fortnight after one of the ugliest election in people’s memory, you can see people hurling insults, pitching hate at each other. In the media, among ourselves and even within families, people are unfriending one another, refusing to speak to one another, going as far as to cancel Thanksgiving family dinners because of the election, and who supported which candidate.

Democracy is not perfect. In fact, Winston Churchill once stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But democracy is still the only system that allows us, the people, to have a voice, to place a person in office or take them out of it again. So far, this system has been more successful than all the others. Economically, socially, culturally—in every possible way, democracy has provided us with untold opportunities. It has granted us the greatest number of freedoms and rights. It has worked well—though not perfectly—for nearly 240 years now.

Still, what happened last week has left many of us in a state of shock and disbelief. In poll after poll, we were led to believe in a different outcome. For many of us, this election was to be an affirmation of principles we believed in, that we worked hard for, and that took decades to accomplish. But instead, we saw a swing in the other direction.

As a result of this election, there have been demonstrations, protests, marches and rallies. We have also seen and heard mean and ugly words. Symbols of hatred have been popping up in neighbors’ yards, in mailboxes, in the social media. One of the most common of these symbols is the swastika, a fearful symbol that to the Jewish people has special, ominous meaning, as it represents death and destruction, reminding us of the Holocaust, the most terrible disaster our people has endured in the last 2000 years.

But it isn’t only Jews who are seeing these signs of hate. All minorities—Muslims, gays, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants—are feeling threatened by a wave of hatred and intolerance.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, reports that since the election, there have been close to 500 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation. In the larger picture, 500 isn’t a huge number. But the cumulative effect has been to strike fear in the hearts of millions more. These hateful acts have been taking place at K-12th grade schools (!), on university and college campuses, in places of business, private homes and public houses of worship. Even if we don’t experience the hate ourselves, television, the papers, the social media, all make sure we become witnesses to it.

One thing that we have learned from Abraham, the first Jew, the first recorded refugee from persecution, is that we are all responsible for one another. Throughout our 3600 years of existence the Jewish People have learned that, in order to survive, we must be there for one another. The legacy that the Founding Fathers of our country—all followers in Abraham’s footsteps—have left us, is that if America is to remain the Land Of The Free, we must be there for one another whenever we see acts of injustice, hatred, violence and intimidation.

Like yet another Abraham, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fifty years ago marched in Selma, Alabama, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King, arms linked to show support for those whose felt intimidated and disenfranchised, we too need to let all people—individuals and groups of all genders, races and beliefs—who are filled with fear, who see the hateful signs and words and know all too well what they mean, we need to let them know that we are there with them and will continue to be there for them. No individual, no group in America today need feel that they are alone. WE STAND WITH YOU. No one should feel afraid of his or her neighbor. We still believe that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important rule of humanity, and we must stand up and defend it whenever we see it threatened.

Father Abraham heeded the call to leave his homeland. Despite his standing in the community, despite all the contributions he made to his society in religion, business, art, literature, and philosophy, Abraham felt unsafe in his own homeland. And so he left all he knew and began his journey. It’s a path we still find ourselves on today: A journey toward a land and a time when all people, in all their marvelous diversity, live in peace and harmony. We don’t know when we will get there, but if our way of life is to survive, we cannot stumble and fall out along the way.

May our communities be strengthened by our pursuit of justice and compassion. May our nation continue to be a shining beacon for all who feel oppressed and persecuted. And may we all become messengers of hope, carrying forward the task of making America the great nation that it is and can be. May we see the day when all people shall walk free, tall and unafraid, and may this day come soon. Amen!