Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            America once again this week witnessed the spectacle of awesome power bestowed upon a freely elected leader.  One Fox News commentator observed that once every four years we set aside partisanship to be inspired by the display.  For one afternoon we don't celebrate the man or the policies, but the office and the principle of democratically elected government.  Well, except for 1933, when Herbert Hoover refused to go to Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration.  This year the second inauguration of America's first black president coincided with the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Day.  This inspired President Obama to use two Bibles at his swearing in ceremony.  One was the same Bible he used in 2009, which had belonged to Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.  The other Holy Scriptures had belonged to Dr. King, whose leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in many ways finally fulfilled the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment.  I doubt anyone on the podium considered that this symbolism reflects an important idea in this week's Torah reading. 

            In this week's parsha we read about the Jews' departure from Egypt.  The back breaking work was over and they had physically departed from the scene of the bondage, but were they really free?  I don't think so.  Psychologically they were still slaves.  At the first sign of trouble, they regretted leaving Egypt and blamed Moshe for their terrible plight.  Lincoln was saved from the indignities Moshe endured, because of his assassination.  Sometimes death is a good career move.  But the American slaves suffered mightily, and many longed for the days of slavery.  Why should this be?  Why can't newly freed slaves embrace the freedom and relish the responsibilities?  This question is answered by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1891).  He observed the freeing of Russia's version of slavery, the serfs, in 1861, and declared that serfs couldn't just be free, because slavery provided something freedom didn't, namely security.  The slave always knew where his next meal was coming from; the freeman didn't.  In his novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1878), Dostoyevsky describes the Great Inquisitor of the Catholic Church who plans to provide people with unlimited bread, and then he says: In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.   At last this priest tells God:  But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice?

            We see that in the Jews this week.

            Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etziyon discusses the issue in an article on this week's parsha.  He explains that we can begin to understand the problem from the following verse:  Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there God tested them (Exodus 15:26).  In the Hebrew it says that God gave Chok or laws we can't understand and Mishpat, laws which we do comprehend.  The Midrash says that the laws God gave were Shabbat and the Red Heifer, the paradigm for mitzvoth we don't quite get.  Why doesn't the Torah identify the mitzvoth given?   So, Rabbi Lichtenstein says that every mitzvah has two aspects.  There is the nature of that particular act and there is also a general significance in terms of submitting to God's will.  Part of the preparation for becoming free and independent was this submission to a higher will. That is the test mentioned in verse; passing this test makes the water sweet. This belief in the existence and power of God would eventually release the Jews from their Egyptian security blanket.

            It took a whole century, from Lincoln to King, for the former American slaves to become full fledged members of our society.  How long did it take the Jews?  Forty years.  In the book of Numbers the Jews complain to Moshe about how wonderful it was in Egypt a number of times, but all of those instances take place in the first half of the book.  Usually these longings were connected to food.  These episodes all happened during the early part of the stay in the desert.  The second half of the book takes place in the last year of the wanderings, and there is never a mention of the longing for Egypt.  So, they had finally recovered from the magnetic pull of the Egyptian security and plentiful food.  And what material do you think separates the stories from the first two years in the desert from the narrative about the fortieth year?  The description of the mitzvah of the Red Heifer does.  Only when the Jews have deflected their concerns from food and everyday living to a higher level, namely the rights and responsibilities of a society based on observing the Law, can they truly be free.

            Rabbi Lichtenstein's late partner, Rav Amital OB"M, once met with a couple who were beginning to take their commitment to Torah more seriously. They asked which mitzvoth they should start with. Rav Amital answered: Start with mitzvoth you understand and find meaningful, but also accept upon yourselves at least one mitzvah which you do not understand at all, and follow it diligently.

            Rabbi Lichtenstein concludes that the highest service of God is the service of one who knows he has the ABILITY to disobey but does not have the RIGHT   We are finally free only when we have the moral strength to submit to a higher authority out of a sense of ethical and intellectual commitment, not bribery or force.  Dostoyevsky said it:  Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide.  But it's not easy, and can take a long time.  How many years can some people exist, before they're allowed to be free?




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