Friends - below are remarks I delivered on Shabbat last week at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC about the recent revolution in Egypt.
Freedom – For What Purpose?
Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Beth El Synagogue
Shabbat Tetzaveh, February 12, 2011 / 8 Adar I, 5771
It was with some trepidation that I decided to speak this morning about what has been unfolding in the Middle East. We are still only beginning our journey together but I hope from the teachings and remarks I’ve shared thus far that you understand I will not primarily use this pulpit to speak about current events. Like you, I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report. I get daily emails from JTA and Jewish Ideas Daily, I get weekly emails from The Forward. I am constantly scanning columns and opinions to try to understand what happens in Israel as best I can. But on foreign policy, Middle East affairs, political science and theory, there are many people in this room at least as knowledgeable, if not more, than I. When I was ordained a rabbi almost 9 years ago, it did not make the conclusions I draw from all those websites and newspapers sacred.
On the other hand, it seemed to me that it would be almost bizarre if, having lived in Israel during the events of the past few weeks, I flew 7,000 miles and said nothing at all about what is, almost all acknowledge, a significant moment in modern history. Why travel to Israel, why live there for a year to live and study, if only to return and act as if it was the same as living here? So, for a few minutes this morning, I want to share with you some insights from the Torah and from living in Israel, each of which will, I hope, help us to think about and understand a bit more about the revolution that took place in Egypt.
This week, we continue the cycle of portions from now through the end of the book of Exodus that talk about the mishkan, the tent we carried with us through the desert as a meeting place between God and the Jewish people. I want to begin by asking, “why did we build the mishkan?” Based on the midrash (Tanhuma, Terumah #8) that “the gold of the mishkan atones for the gold of the golden calf,” Rashi argues that “there is no ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ (chronological order) in the Torah – the incident of the golden calf actually happened a considerable time before the command regarding the work of the Tabernacle was given” (Rashi on Shemot 31:18). The idea is that once God saw the Jewish people commit the sin of the golden calf, God realized that we needed a physical structure to have a sense of the holy, and so the mishkan was a compromise to that very human impulse. But the Spanish commentator, Nachmanides (1194-1270) disagrees (see his comment to Shemot 25:1): he says there is no need to read the Torah as being out of order. The mishkan was part of God’s plan all along. Why? Because the symbolism of the mishkan parallels the events at Har Sinai – the incense of the mishkan reminds us of the smoke that surrounded Mount Sinai; the gold of the mishkan reminds us of the fire on the mountain – and that the mishkan was intended all along as the vehicle with which the Jewish people would carry forward the experience of Sinai in the desert. We could ask ourselves – how do we carry forward our peak experiences in Jewish life? For example, as we sit in synagogue this morning, I would encourage us to ask, how will what happens this morning make a difference in the lives we live during the rest of the week?
What is nice about Nachmanides’ interpretation – that the mishkan was part of the plan all along – is that it points back to something in the story of the Exodus we too often forget. Let’s do a test – I want you to finish the verse for me: God tells Moshe, “Say to him [Pharoah], ‘Adonai, God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you, let….” Right – “let my people go.” But we forget the 2nd part of the verse: “let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 9:1). What we forget is that our freedom is not a value in and of itself – it derives its very value from the fact that it is put towards the service of God.
Some things are undeniable. First, that, as a dictator, Mubarak has denied his people freedoms and failed to build basic institutions of democracy. Second, that the Egyptian people have suffered for 30 years since he came to power and, third, that however afraid we are of what will come, the fact that 77 million people – a population more than ¼ the size of the United States – has escaped from the rule of a totalitarian regime, is a step forward. As Americans, as human beings, we cannot believe only we deserve to chance to live freely. As President Obama said in his June 2009 Cairo speech quite interestingly entitled, “A New Beginning,”:
…I…have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
Some have been disappointed at President Obama’s, and Israel’s response, in the face of a revolution that seems the fulfillment of the American and Jewish ideal – freedom! A friend wrote to me: “I can't get over that the Jewish community’s response seems to be focused on, “how does it affect Israel?” Isn't what is truly important that 77 million people are freeing themselves from dictatorship? The sense that, well democracy is good, but they hate us and we won't like the decisions they make is both hypocritical and defeatist,” he wrote.
I reminded my friend that we must remember the 2nd half of the verse – the purpose of our freedom is the service of God. What does that mean for us? The Torah reminds us freedom is not an ultimate value; quite the opposite; unchecked freedom is the tyranny of the masses. The rabbis remind us that our urges – our sexual urges, our appetites, our fantasies – should not be fulfilled, nor repressed, but rather should be harnessed towards the service of God. In the Talmud, one who is blood thirsty should become a butcher or a mohel – that person should channel the impulse for blood to the service of God. “Eizeh Hu Gibor?” “Who is the hero?” One who conquers the inclination, the yetzer (Pirkei Avot 4:1). In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, Shmonei Perakim, Maimonides describes how we should engage in a repeating good behaviors continually to train ourselves towards the good. All of Jewish life can indeed be seen as being freed from slavery in Egypt not to wander aimlessly, but to surrender our freedom in the desert and give it over to the service of God. Dr. Walter Ackerman wrote an important essay on Jewish education entitled, “Jewish education – For what purpose?” This Shabbat, we might ask, “Freedom – for what purpose?”
By the way, it is too easy to condescendingly look down our nose at “those people” in Egypt and say, “now that they are free, they should use their freedom well.” It is much more difficult to ask ourselves, “to what purposes have I put my freedom?” What do I do with each moment of my life? Have I served God in the desert? Or have I wandered aimlessly, letting precious moments slip away, wasting my time and money on things that don’t matter.
A long time ago in this country, the words of the Negro spiritual could be heard, quietly sung in faith and hope…
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Our story has given hope to many peoples throughout history – as God hoped it would: “that my name be proclaimed throughout the earth” (Exodus 9:16). One of the more interesting images of the past few weeks was seeing an Egyptian protester hold up a sign that said, “Mubarak the Pharoah has to go.” I just wanted to ask, if Mubarak is Pharoah, who are the Jews?! I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s watching protesters in Tahrir Square – which means “liberty square” – reminds us of our own story. We had our Pharoah; they have theirs. Just as we went into the desert, the country of Egypt is headed into the desert, into the unknown; again as before, the whole Middle East, the whole world, is watching. To what purpose, then, will Egyptians put their freedom?
Just as there is a 2nd half of the verse, I want to quote the next paragraph of President Obama’s speech in June 2009,
[G]overnment of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy
Put another way, freedom to take power from others is an imposter, a corruption, an abuse, not a use, of the law. Unqualified support of liberty that will be exploited by terrorists feeds into the hands of thugs. DeTocqueville wrote, “When I see the right and the ability to do everything granted to any power whatsoever, whether it is called people or king, democracy or aristocracy, whether it is exercised in monarchy or republic, I say: there is the seed of tyranny, and I seek to go live under other laws.” An election is not a democracy. The process that has just begun must give birth to freedom that is used towards ensuring more freedom even, and especially, for those with whom you disagree. It must lead to freedom, not suppression; towards equality and education, not indifference and ignorance; towards peace, not war. Today, that is our prayer.
Many of you have asked what it’s like to be in Israel right now. I want to conclude with a story. On Sunday morning after the revolution began, I was sitting at Mandel and started talking with a friend of mine named Tomer. I told him how it was strange that people were asking me from the United States what it was like to be in Israel because for me, it felt like more people were talking about the rain than Egypt; Egypt felt like a 10-hour flight, not a 10-hour drive. “Not for me,” said Tomer. Over Shabbat, we couldn’t talk about anything else.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Well,” he explained, “my dad and his friends fought a lot of wars in the Sinai. They were telling me about all the campaigns and the people who died; they remember. It’s all they can talk about right now…the idea of going back…”
Tomer reminded me again that all our freedom was paid for by those who sacrificed before; but it’s too easy sometimes to think about, even to thank, “those people,” nameless, anonymous ancestors. In Israel, such a large part of the population was, or will be, a soldier. What that means is that when Israelis watch the TV and see 77 million Egyptians free, when they hear the Muslim Brotherhood threaten to tear up the peace treaty signed 30 years ago, they watch and wonder with more than a passing interest about what Egyptians will do with their freedom in the desert? Freedom, to what end, they wonder?
For Tomer and his family, the news is not anonymous. It was their family who fought and died for peace in the Sinai, and it will be theirs, God forbid, if it is necessary to fight again. They remember the Sinai and what happened there, as should we. For them, the news is personal, as it should always be for us. Today, that too is my prayer.