Who are we to each other? What do we have in common with you and me? What are we hoping to achieve?
These questions keep rattling around in my mind as we progress through another teetering week for our community and our nation. Watching the insurrection on January 6th, and now an empty inauguration, surrounded by tens of thousands of armed National Guard, these important and deep questions just won’t go away. During the riot that killed six Americans, including two police officers, one of the most ubiquitous symbols of the insurrection was the yellow Gadsen Flag with the iconic snake and phrase, “Don’t tread on me.” This flag, which has a long and shifting history that includes racism and white supremacy, has at its core the basic warning that anyone who attacks freedom will get the bite of the snake. But to whom and from whom do the snake and motto refer? Clearly it means us, ourselves, now instead of King George.
It is deeply sad and ironic to me that for decades now, the most energizing force in the world is entropy. The idea that it is more interesting or easier to dissolve relationships, rip apart a family, end friendships, close businesses, or leave a spiritual community because one is too exhausted to try, makes me shudder.
When did we become so tired of each other?
Gravity is one force that contains entropy, but as physicists teach, it’s a weak force. You can easily overcome the pull of heavy things simply by heating air inside a balloon or catching the wind under a kite. Any three-year-old can tell you that when they jump they fly. And what is true for physics is shockingly true for relationships. Life feels really heavy right now, but sometimes we confuse compressive forces for oppressive ones. A disagreement becomes an existential argument; one person’s self-expression feels like the denial of another person’s. The fatigue of it all spurs our desire to leave. We unfriend, we ghost, we delete, we cancel, we shut down. In a few clicks of a button, or none at all, we achieve escape velocity. We fly our flags and we fly away.
There is no Torah portion that is more focused on escape than this one, Bo. In the third and penultimate story of the Exodus, God brings the last of the plagues against the ancient Egyptians. In the culminating sequence between God and a man who thinks himself a God (Pharaoh), Moses prepares the Israelites for departure, commanding them to take a lamb, slaughter it, dip hyssop leaves into it and spread it upon the doorpost. (Exodus 12:22) Moses commands us to maintain this ritual for all time, even after we are free. The shank bone, or zro’a, on the seder plate, is how we continue the ritual of the paschal lamb even today. The night vigil is meant to protect the Israelites from the Destroyer Angel, who took the life of the first born Egyptian. The night of Passover is perhaps the most stark moment in history where freedom and devastation occurred so starkly and simultaneously. If the Torah left the story there, we would learn that Judaism’s central understanding of liberty is that to be free of oppression one must totally destroy the oppressor, owing nothing of ourselves but the price of a fancy dinner.
Judaism has a much more complex idea of freedom than what first appears. There is a second ritual that carries a coequal to the first. Moses envisions a time in the future when the slaves are free, living in their own land. “You shall set apart every first-issue of the womb, every male firstling that your cattle drop…and you must redeem every first-born male of your offspring.” (Exodus 13:12-13) Why this strange commandment?
The Torah explains, “When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my sons.” (Exodus 13:15) Freedom, it appears, cannot not be based on utter destruction. We cannot simply ghost the ghosts of Egyptian children who died that night. The newly liberated slaves are held accountable to God for the pain the Exodus wrought. (Midrash Tanchuma, Sforno) In that sense, the mutuality of the Egyptian and the Israelite is eternal and inexhaustible.
On the most fundamental level, the Torah, from its very beginning, resists entropy. Out of the disorganized chaos of the void, God fashioned a world. Out of the morass of idol worship, Abraham found the One. Out of world slavery that turns human beings into commodities, liberty is declared so that we all might form a society obsessed with order of law and justice. Even at these opening moments of freedom, where escape is the focus, the Torah itself reminds us that there is a covenant that binds us together. The covenant: What we owe each other – our mutuality of being alive under the firmament of heaven – cannot be a weak force. True freedom means being involved with each other and bound to each other, under God indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I leave you with a quote from the distinguished Justice Learned Hand, who in 1944 gave a speech at the swearing-in ceremony for new American citizens. He wrote, “And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few …”