Israelite's Freedom, Israel's Freedom: Reflections on President Obama's Israel Trip

Sometimes, particularly in this book of Leviticus that we started reading from last week, the Torah can seem convoluted, murky ... difficult to understand. When reading through or studying, we may wade slowly through whole sections listing the genealogies of who begat whom, or passages filled with seemingly endless delineations of measurements for the mishkan.

Often, however, the Torah screams to us one word, or one verse, that can provide spiritual nourishment from one Shabbat to the next. V'ahavta et Adonai elohecha b'chol l'vavcha; Love your God with all of your heart. Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad; Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One. Lo b'shamayiim hi; The Torah is not in heaven. And here is a verse from Deuteronomy which remains a foundational principle for Reform Judaism, Tzedek tzedek tirdof; Justice, justice shall you pursue.

On this Shabbat before Pesach, I reflect on this verse, as justice and freedom are the central themes of Passover. The matzah, maror, shank bone, the children's frantic search for the afikomen, our singing of the 4 questions ... all of these rituals help us fulfill Rabban Gamliel's dictum that each of us are meant to act as if we were slaves in Egypt, and that God freed us. Passover is not historical; it is experiential.

And so, on Passover, we think not only of the Israelite's freedom from Egypt. We reflect on our freedom, on our security. The freedom that God gave to us can be used ... should be used ... to enable the freedom of others. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue. Passover may be a uniquely Jewish holiday, but its themes are universal.


Just yesterday, Thursday 3/21/13, President Obama travelled to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Politicos and pundits had the sense that the president would not outline any specific plans for a peace process in the Middle East. Expectations were at a minimum. So much so in fact, that members of the press corps gave a monicker to the president's trip: Operation Desert Schmooze.

I'm sure many of you heard the President's speech, or caught highlights of it on the news or the Internet. It struck me that President Obama began his speech by talking about our upcoming holiday of Passover and of our own struggle for freedom and justice. In fact, ever since he hit the campaign trail in 2008, the White House has hosted its own Passover seder, using but of course, the Maxwell Haggadah.

Just after the speech, another president, the president of our Union for Reform Judaism, Rick Jacobs, commented on the President's speech: As the leader of the largest Movement of Jews in North America, I want to thank President Obama for his vision, his energy and his leadership. We stand in support of the President as he works to help bring peace and security to the state of Israel.

President Obama was quite clear on the sustained security of the state of Israel: Make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you—particularly the young people—that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vad.” (You are not alone.) Later in the speech, he strongly stated that Israel should not be expected to negotiate with those who demands its destruction. But he also mentioned that there is a window of opportunity. There is no easy solution that will negate thousands of years of mistrust and conflict, but there is a possibility, an opportunity. That possibility can begin a new chapter of history. Talking about the Palestinians, he said Their right to self-recognition, their right to justice, must also be recognized.


These comments brings me back to that wonderful verse, Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Our Torah commentators saw this verse and asked, why is tzedek repeated twice? Surely it's obvious that we should pursue peace and justice. But what does it mean that the word for justice follows itself? One answer is that we must remember that just as we pursue justice, we must pursue justice with justice. The ends do not justify the means. President Obama reflected this notion when he said that the peace process must be a just process. We may not march through the Red Sea together holding hands, but we must walk through together.


Quoting President Obama: There are always going to be reasons to avoid risk. There will always be people who provide an excuse not to act.

After the Exodus, we wander. a lot. It takes the Israelites 40 years to reach the promised land, the land of milk and honey, the land of Israel. But the journey from Egypt to Israel did not need to take 40 years. If you've ever been to the Middle East, you may know that It's only about a 240 mile trip to get from Egypt to Israel. Do the math - the Isrealites averaged a paltry 6 miles a year! Why?

This is the reason: In the book of Numbers, God sends 12 scouts to look at the land of Israel and report back to the Israelite people. God hopes that the scouts will report excitement and hope, eager to go into this new chapter of their lives. But instead, 10 of the 12 scouts share feelings of fear and negativity. They scare the other Israelites. At one point, the Israelites even beg Moses to let them go back into Egypt! The Israelites were scared to move on. They were still trapped in Egypt. Not physically, but spiritually. In fact, the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayiim, reflects this sense of being metaphorically imprisoned. The word is a conjunction of three words: Mi, tzar and -im. Mi means from. Tzar means a narrow place. and the suffix -im is a plural ending. Taken together the words Mitzrayiim means from the narrow places. Passover helps to take us out of our own Mitzrayiim.

Judaism teaches us to act, sometimes in spite of our fears, and sometimes despite the risk involved. Regarding Israel and its future, let us be like Joshua and Caleb, the two scouts who had the courage to venture into the unknown, with its risks and with its challenges, but also with the faith that it would be a holy, blessed journey.


In a moment of vulnerability and humility, President Obama said: And let me say this as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.

Our holiday of Passover teaches us that God communicates with us when we communicate with God; when we perform mitzvot; when we take action.

My favorite midrash occurs just before the splitting of the Red Sea. The Israelites can hear the thundering approach of the Egyptian army. They are trapped, because the expanse of the Red Sea is in front of them. As fear and dread grow, the Israelites pray to God as fervently as they know how. And nothing happens. After a few minutes, a man named Nachson pushes his way to the front of the crowd. Already he is singing the words of Mi Chamocha, Mi Chamocha ba'elim Adonai, Who is like you Eternal God? He wades into the water, prayer and song still on his lips. And just as his head goes under water, God splits the Red Sea, and the entire throng of Israelites join Nachson in song. What's the takeaway of this midrash? Prayer is not enough. As Obama said, quoting Ghandi, Be the change that you want to see in the world.

May Passover challenge all of us not to be shackled to the Mitzrayiim of the past. May we, like Nachson, wade through the murky waters of the unknown future with songs on our lips and prayers in our hearts. We will not go back to Mitzrayiim. We will go forward, to a promised land of peace and security. It is this Israel that we should dream of at the end of our seders, when we joyously say, L'shanah haba'ah Birushalyaim; Next year in Jerusalem.

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