Laboring for Freedom
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi
27 January 2017
“I have heard the cries of the children of Israel,
Whom the Egyptians are enslaving in bondage,
And I remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6:5).
The certainty with which this week’s Torah portion opens is
Our people are in pain.
We are being treated unfairly.
We are held in slavery.
Generations have passed since the leader
Of the land in which we’ve been living
Has even known the names of our Jewish communal leaders.
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
“And they oppressed the Israelites with difficult labors.”
Suddenly the ultimate Authority hears our cries,
And does something about it.
All told, ten things, actually--
The plagues that finally prompt Pharaoh to “let our people go.”
But it’s never really that easy,
Freedom has never been a matter
Of a great, all-powerful God
Suddenly splitting the sea for us.
Freedom won’t work that way today, either.
Over Winter Break and J-Term,
Many of you reached out to me
With questions about how to live
In the uncertainty of today’s world,
Including but not limited to the current presidential administration in particular.
Uncertainty is agonizing.
And we all want to hear that promises have been remembered,
That freedom’s just around the corner,
Across the sea, within reach.
It would be comforting to hear that all we need to do is be led to the shore.
But the thing is, freedom doesn’t work that way.
Freedom is having ownership of our bodies and some measure of autonomy
For our futures.
Freedom is not an absence of work.
Freedom is a different sort of labor.
In Hebrew, avodah means “slavery.”
And avodah also means “worship.” “Service.”
Freedom is about laboring for our values, our heritage, our communities,
I keep thinking about the heroes of last week’s Torah portion:
The Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah.
In the course of their work,
They took ownership.
They refused to be enslaved to Pharaoh’s edict.
They disobeyed his orders to kill all male Hebrew children as they emerged
from their mothers’ wombs.
Instead, they lied to Pharaoh and let all the children live.
And I keep thinking about the Hebrew parents themselves:
Those folks who continued to grow their families
Despite Pharaoh’s attempt to bring only death and destruction and bitter bondage.
In the haftarah reading for this week,
Isaiah uses the image of birth to describe
The miraculous turn from slavery to freedom,
From rejection to acceptance:
“Who has ever heard the likes of this?
Who has ever seen the likes of this?
Is it possible that a land can be born in one day?
Is a nation born all at once--
That Zion should feel birth pangs and
Immediately bear her children?” (Isaiah 66: 8).
I’ve never actually given birth.
But I think it likely feels both as miraculous as Isaiah claims
And also like a sh&* ton of work!
It’s called labor for a reason.
Some of you may have seen Sikh activist Valerie Kaur’s
New Year’s speech.
She asked us to reenvision the darkness many of us see around us
Not as the “darkness of the tomb,”
But rather as the “darkness of the womb.”
“Breathe,” she urged.
And after that, she reminded us, it’s time to “Push.”
So, here’s the thing:
Lots of us want certainty.
Lots of us want the Ultimate Authority to come and
Tell us what to do.
Lots of us want to hear a booming voice reassuring us,
“I have heard the people’s cry,
And I have remembered My covenant.”
Lots of us want to just be on the other side of the sea already!
But that’s skipping a whole bunch of steps.
That’s skipping the hopefulness of the Hebrew parents
Who went ahead growing their families despite Pharaoh’s edict.
That’s skipping the rebellion of the midwives Shifra and Puah
Who simply disregarded the words of a powerful king.
That’s skipping the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam
In showing the people that a new future was possible.
That’s skipping the agonizing plagues.
That’s skipping the terror at the shores of the sea
And the immense relief and fulfillment and wonder of reaching the opposite shore.
And that’s for sure skipping the years of wandering in the desert,
Figuring out how to be a free and an ethical people.
That’s skipping the avodah, the service,
That we’re called to as Reform Jews.
Our movement was founded by folks who believed deeply
That it is our responsibility as Jews
To refuse to merely accept tradition because it was handed down to us.
Reform Jews have long believed in doing the work
That freedom requires:
Examine inherited beliefs.
Honor the generations that came before us.
Listen to the cries of the oppressed around us.
Respond to the changing needs of our world.
Accept newly-revealed truths.
Reform Jews, in the words of its leaders
On the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary
Of the formal establishment of our movement in the U.S.,
Dedicated itself to this labor:
“The great contribution of Reform Judaism
Is that it has enabled the Jewish people
To introduce innovation while preserving tradition,
To embrace diversity while asserting commonality,
To affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt,
And to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”
Narrowing the gap between the affluent and the poor,
Achieving full inclusion for women and the queer community
In both Jewish life and political life,
Bringing meaningful Jewish practice into our homes,
Engaging with the broader Jewish community in love and respect--
These are just some of the values we espouse as Reform Jews.
Values that require us to labor.
To breathe. And to push.
It’s not easy.
In fact, it’s labor.
That’s what freedom is like.
That’s what avodah is.
Freedom doesn’t appear in a flash.
It is birthed.
Freedom requires parents and midwives,
Community and family.
And, sure, it requires a miracle, also.
God heard the cries of our people in their enslavement.
God performed miracles such as had never been witnessed, before or since.
God recognized that the Jewish people suffered from kotzer ruach--
A crushed spirit.
And God lifted our spirits by performing those signs and wonders.
And God made it possible for us to breathe again.
But the purpose of all those signs and wonders,
All those labors,
Was to free us for a different kind of avodah,
The labor of being Jewish in a changing world.
The work will never be over.
Because there will always be a cry to which we must respond.
There will always be a name that calls out to be recognized.
There will always be new kings who make claims on the lives of the less powerful.
And there will always be an opportunity for us to pay no heed
To the edicts of any Pharaoh who rises up in the name of destruction and enslavement.
There we always be an opportunity for us to choose life,
And to labor for the values of our Jewish covenant.
Maybe that’s not as comforting as a religious tradition
That would assure us that all we need to do is surrender everything into God’s hands.
But freedom has never worked that way.
So, instead of comfort, we’ll turn to covenant--
That call to birth the freedom we wish to enjoy and to engender.