I was struck by the absurdity and irony of the situation. An ivy-league trained lawyer who could only communicate his inner emotional state through breaking the law. A man who took comfort in prison because it protected him from his own bad choices. Living away from others, living locked in a known world, gave this lawyer the freedom that he needed to trust himself.
Parashah Bo, Exodus 10 through 13, begins to define freedom in relation to lack of slavery. It is a murky transition where we don’t know where the Israelites are going and what will happen to them when they get there. Granted, we know that slavery was uncomfortable. People suffered from its oppression, as the text states, a terrible groan went forth from the mouths of the Israelites. The labour was a great strain, husbands and wives were not allowed to live together and first born male children were drowned in the river. Yet slavery was a pattern of life that the people had endured for four hundred years. They were accustomed to the sting of the leather strap, the feel of stones against callused palms. There were no surprises, no unexpected moments. They knew this life from the inside.
And then, through Moses, from God, came the promise of freedom, of change, both enticing and disruptive. It was life beyond the prison walls with its dizzying number of choices, potentially paralyzing options, where the strap would not sting but feet would follow an undetermined path.
Moses understood this as he explained to Pharaoh that the people Israel would enter freedom by stating, “We do not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive.” Israel cannot even conceive of how they will be in relationship with God as a free people. Will they be able to offer sacrifices as their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had done in Canaan? Would they make statues to worship as their Egyptian neighbors did?
Ironically, even Moses himself wasn’t sure where or how the people were to worship God. Uncertain of their destination, not knowing what they were to do when they got there, the Jews had to be willing to live with the burden of freedom- the power to make choices and to take responsibility for these choices.” Freedom is ultimately the ability to respond- responsibility. Freedom is ultimately the ability to live with the uncertainty. To imagine life beyond enslavement- the courage to step beyond what we know for the potential of something better. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, coming from the root Tzar that means narrow/tight or constricted. Egypt was a place, which constricted our people, and we needed to leave the narrowness in order to become ourselves.
Although we don’t imagine our lives as such, we are like the ancient Israelites, living in an age of uncertainty. We ransack the past for its stored wisdom and traditions while moving into the desert of the unknown. Modern humanity does not know its destination and isn’t even sure that it is enjoying the voyage. We have good cause for our doubts.
Consider the degree of changes witnessed in the past century alone. One hundred years ago war was foot soldiers, ships and bullets. Now terrorism and seemingly random attacks are our enemies. At the turn of the century, people communicated through letters, word of mouth or personal visits. Now its cell phones that can take pictures and e-mail. We hardly hesitate to call Israel or schedule a flight to China. Everything is available at the touch of a fingertip, and yet there is so much that is still out of reach. We have drugs that seem to treat a devastating spreading rate of still terminal cancer, vioxx causes heart attacks- we can learn everything we want, and many things that we do not need to know on the internet. Technology has the ability to draw us together while breaking face to face relationships apart. So where do all these advancements lead? What does freedom get us?
While the world around us is running at a crazy speed, we need to find what grounds us as people and as Jews. Reform Judaism does not mean that we are less religious, it means that we explore our sense of Judaism through a modern lens. Now is the time to move beyond our comfort zone- the walls of assimilated American Jewish life- and find ways to increase our ritual participation: light Shabbat candles weekly, learn about and keep a level of Kashrut, begin to study Torah and allow the text to inform your choices. It takes courage to enter a synagogue and stay there long enough to learn the liturgy and the melodies. It takes courage to enter an adult education class and realize how much we don’t know. It takes courage---perhaps the most courage of all--- to tell your child that he or she will continue religious school through Confirmation in the tenth grade without question because it’s important to you and to prove it to them by modeling. It takes courage to commit to being an active Jew. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To be is to stand for”. To be is to be free. Let us use our freedom, as did the Israelites who crossed the sea to assure a Jewish future for our children and their great-grandchildren. The task is not as impossible as it may seem.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav reminds us that although the wilderness seems vast and untamable, “The world is a very narrow bridge; the essential thing for us all is not to be afraid.”
The journey waits. It may be difficult but the reward is a personal and communal Sinai.