Tag Archives: Liberation

Our Liberation is Bound Up Together

We read about the Kriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea, this past Shabbat, as we also celebrated the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And we did so, as many across the nation continued to march, organize, and protest. When we read of the splitting of the sea, the greatest of all miracles that our people experienced, and the marching, walking, singing, and dancing that took place as we crossed, I can’t help but connect these two images: the image of the marching across a split sea and that of marching for justice and equality.

splitting the seaThere are countless midrashim, rabbinic explanations, that detail the splitting of the sea. These midrashim focuses on the ripple effect – pun intended – that such public actions, and such miracles, can have. The Mechilta says that the roar of the split sea was so loud that it was heard in neighboring countries. Shemot Rabbah says that all waters split, not just those of the sea that the Israelites crossed. As those waters split, so too did the waters of the lakes and wells, and even water in people’s glasses and jars. The impact was felt by those who were not even present.

Midrash focuses further on the actions of the angels during this experience. These celestial beings, who are perfect in the Heavens, wanted to sing and celebrate as the Israelites crossed the split sea. But God stopped them for the Israelites were not yet free, were not yet safe. “How can I let you sing as they fear their lives?”, God challenged the angels. Essentially, God is asking, how can you be content, when others fear for their safety? God is even telling the angels, God’s messengers meant to guide us in God’s path, that they are not superior or holier than we are. We are bound up together. They cannot be content if others are not free.

Lilla Watson, the 1970’s Queensland Aboriginal Activist, reminds us:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Your liberation is bound up with mine. And mine with yours. Our liberation is bound up in one another. And so Midrash Avkir even concludes that the angel Gabriel walked with the Israelites as they crossed the split sea, holding back the water on the right and on the left, and preventing the walls of water from collapsing on them. He could not remain in the Heavens on high, simply relaxing and being content with his life when others feared for theirs. He – an angel of God – marched arm-in-arm, side-by-side, with the Israelites and protected them in their most vulnerable state. He acknowledged that our liberations are bound up together.

So what is our mission, our obligation, our responsibility in 2019, as bigotry against all minorities is on the rise, as hate groups seem to have come out of the sewers and back into daylong? Our mission is to be united against the shared adversity that we face.  Our mission is to not sit and sing while others fear. Our mission is to be angels for each other, to stand united against police brutality, against mass incarceration and a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, to stand against transphobic and homophobic policies pushed by the White House, to stand up to Islamophobic travel bans and xenophobic policing of immigrants, to unite against a rise in anti-Semitism, to break down walls that are trying to be built to divide us. Our mission is to understand that we are all in this together. And only then, when we all cross that split sea, leaving Mitzrayim, the narrowest places of society behind, can we truly sing and rejoice. Then, and only then, will we all finally be free.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fifty Years After Selma, Still Fighting for Liberation at the Seder

50thAnniversaryBloodySundayOn March 7th and March 8th, earlier this month, tens of thousands gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama spoke and former President George W. Bush attended. They were joined by Democrats and Republicans —  legislators, politicians, and civilians –  all marching to commemorate the freedom-marchers clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers as they peacefully marched for the right to vote half a century ago.

This past Shabbat, March 21st, 2015, was the anniversary of the third DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworthof those three marches, the march that led to the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, the march that was successful and led to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act several months later. This march also marked the moment when religious leaders of all faiths, ethnicities, and races refused to stand idly by, and chose to walk alongside the likes of King, Lewis, Abernathy, Bunche, and Shuttlesworth.

This march was a reminder that freedom is a God-given right so we must walk alongside our brothers and sisters to ensure that our freedom is their freedom. The likes of Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Davis, and so many other religious leaders who marched, knew that we could not celebrate our freedom and our liberation while others were not yet liberated, while others were discriminated against.

Fifty years later, we still talk about this picture and this march. We talk about how far society has come and yet, how far we have to go. This past Shabbat, as we observed this fiftieth anniversary, we also read a special Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, the fourth of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover. This special maftir Torah reading comes from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus and goes into detail about how to slaughter the pascal sacrifice and then how to eat that sacrifice. What we rush over, but what is arguably the most significant of instructions, is the reminder to put the blood of the sacrifice on our doorposts. For it was that blood that saved the Israelites and ultimately, following the tenth and final plague, led to their freedom. The essence of the ritual is to remind us of that freedom.

In fact, all rituals of the Passover seder are meant to remind us of freedom and liberation. We are taught:

B’chol Dor va’dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Such an obligation is not about remembering or re-enacting. Such an obligation is about acknowledging that there is still liberation that needs to take place in our society and in our world. Telling the Passover narrative must remind us of the marching that we still need to do, that there is still inequality in society, still those that we must work to liberate. Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of the Jewish social justice organization, Bend the Arc, offers insight into the rabbis of B’nai Brak that we read about in the Passover Haggadah. We learn in the Haggadah that they were so engaged in the seder that theytalk until daybreak, when their students interrupt them. Rothbaum reminds us that they were not discussing ritual or debating halakha, Jewish law. Rather, they were up until the early hours of the morning talking about liberation – about the exodus experience. A room of rabbis suffering through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire were focused on our communal liberation narrative, in hopes of their own liberation.

For ultimately, that is what the seder is all about: telling the story. In my family, we tend to rush through the rituals aspects of the seder in order to get to the magid section in which we retell the exodus narrative. We do so because we find hope and inspiration in the narrative. Such an exodus from slavery to freedom reminds us of what is possible. It reminds us that we must continue to fight for liberation of all. We must continue to fight racial injustice and gender discrimination. We must continue to fight religious persecution, bigotry, and homophobia. We must continue to fight, to march, and to take action, until we can all experience the journey to freedom.

The Zohar explains that Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is derived from the Hebrew MiTzarim, which literally means, “from narrowness.” We march away from narrow-minded discrimination and bigotry towards a promised land of equality and love.

Civil rights leaders organized three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one ended with peaceful protesters bloodied and beaten. But they marched again, and again. We don’t just look back on a single march, but instead on all three marches, for in continuing to march, we find a determination and dedication to justice and to freedom.

With each plague in Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, but that did not stop Moses from demanding to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Each march shared a similar declaration. No matter how many times it took, people of all faiths continued to march and were determined to cross that metaphorical split sea.

The image of that third march, of Heschel and King marching together, along with so many other clergy of diverse faiths and backgrounds, is a reminder that we march together for freedom for all. The prophetic words of Dr. King ring true for people of all faiths:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How can we celebrate freedom when others are not? How can we celebrate liberation when there is still such injustice in our society?

We read in the Haggadah:

This year we are slaves. Next year, free people.

We acknowledge that as long as there is injustice, we cannot truly be free. We cannot celebrate freedom for ourselves until we can celebrate freedom and equality for all. So fifty years later, may we continue to march. May we continue to peacefully assembly and may our seder experiences serve as catalysts in our shared efforts to liberate us all from societal injustice. This year there is still injustice and discrimination. Next year, may we all be liberated.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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