What Does it Mean to be Free? Responsibility … for the Freedom of Others

This is a crosspost from Faith in Public Life’s 100 Days of Justice (www.justice100.org), an initiative which partners with voices from diverse religious, racial, cultural backgrounds and LGTBQ  communities to widely share resources, stories and calls to action at both the national and state levels. This effort to stimulate cooperation and elevate issues of justice, compassion and the common good reached out to The Little Minyan Kehilla’s “Rabbi Jessica” for her perspective on the closing day of the Passover Festival.  

As the sun set on the Easter holiday this year, the festival of Passover continued with the commencement of the seventh day, which Rabbinic tradition suggests is when theIsraelites crossed through the parted Sea of Reeds. So central to our Jewish wisdom tradition is this story of redemption from slavery that it is part of our liturgy multiple times daily.  And each year, at Passover, Jews read in the Haggadah (Passover seder liturgy) these words from Torah (Exodus 13:8): “…this is what the Holy One did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.” Thus, this narrative of our movement from slavery to freedom, from narrowness to liberation, from constriction to expansiveness, is in our DNA… it is meant to inform our thoughts, our intentions, our behavior.

 The miraculous intervention of the Divine, clearly demarcating the end of Egyptian bondage and the beginnings of the long freedom journey to the Holy Land, can be viewed through many lenses in our 21st century lives. Because we are invited by Torah to truly embody and experience it, I try to feel it differently each year based on my life’s circumstances and the world around me. Our world and the complexities of life provide no shortage of material.

 During this year’s Festival of Freedom, I have crossed from Israel (where an intensive study and personal growth Sabbatical ended with celebrating the first days of Passover) to America (where I celebrate its conclusion). For reasons completely unrelated, my time in Israel allowed me a very real freedom from the first 100 days of the new administration. Privilege afforded me this freedom of physical movement and the opportunity to participate in full days (and nights) of study. Privilege also afforded me the self-care to “look away” from the constriction being perpetrated by this new administration. I have told myself that I have been “recharging my advocacy batteries,” and while this is absolutely true, it is equally true that my American privilege requires me to be a tireless advocate for those who are still enslaved. So as I sat down to write, I heard the voice of the prominent Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spending the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. 

 First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 I have heard Niemöller’s words used often across the decades, but never so much as in recent months. The privileged among us have awoken to the reality that our freedom requires of us much more than thoughts and words of condemnation for the enslavement of others in the variety of forms it takes in our country today. Our freedom calls us to action and advocacy, to putting our bodies and souls behind the words of Torah so as to re-awaken the Divine Indwelling within our human community and inspire the miraculous to once again accompany us as we journey toward freedom.

 Jessica K. Shimberg is a senior rabbinical student (a self described “recovering litigator/emerging rabbi”) serving as spiritual leader of The Little Minyan Kehilla, a central Ohio congregation rooted in Earth-care and social justice and affiliated with Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist movements.

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