Privilege and Redemption
We are beneficiaries of those who have gone before, and the power and privileges associated with these blessings come with obligations as well. Torah insists that we never forget what is the source of our prosperity while remaining ever committed to working (hard) for justice.
Liberation at the Foot of the Mountain
Every Passover, we remind ourselves that we are slaves waiting to be freed. The exodus is not a story about a legendary federation of tribes escaping captivity in a foreign land. It is a story about us. We situate ourselves in the mythic drama by grasping the matzah in our hands and declaring: הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. … This year [we are] slaves; next year [may we be] free.” Year after year, week after week, day after day, the rituals and texts of our tradition strive to remind us that the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness is our journey and that the purpose assigned to them in the Torah is our mission as well.
This dynamic is fully on display in this week’s Torah portion. The setting is the east bank of the Jordan River, where Moses delivers his final instructions to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. As we were reminded in last week’s parashah, the generation that had escaped from Egypt was doomed to die in the wilderness because of the sin of the spies (Deut. 1:35). And yet, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses addresses this next generation as if they were those who left Egypt on foot. As just one example, when Moses recounts the giving of the Ten Commandments, he insists that this later generation received them personally: “The Eternal our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Eternal spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire” (Deut. 5:2-4). This generation, which wasn’t actually present for those events, is considered to be identical with the generation of the exodus. And so it goes with every subsequent generation, including our own. We are the enslaved and the redeemed; we are the oppressed as well as the victorious.
As spring warms into summer and the calendar shifts from Pesach to Shavuot, the journey of redemption continues to unfold. Escape from Egypt is the budding sprout of redemption, but only at Mount Sinai does liberation truly bloom. Freedom is complete, our tradition insists, not when we can do whatever we want but rather when we are able to don the “yoke of the Torah” (Avot 3:5).
Upon rescuing us from Egypt, as Moses recounts, “the Eternal commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Eternal our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case” (Deut. 6:24). This passage insists that not only our freedom but our very existence depends upon our faithfulness to Torah.
These last words—“as is now the case”—ring clearly in our ears today. If we wish to enjoy the spiritual and material legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we must honor the Source of goodness that has bestowed upon us these innumerable blessings by committing ourselves to sacred service.
This service is not, as caricatures might suggest, an enslavement to the traditions of the past. Judaism has never demanded simple obedience, and adherence to mitzvot has never been about religious ritual alone. The Torah is replete with ethical mandates and moral laws, and the prophets insist time and again that religious devotions are worthless without the pursuit of justice.
There is no shortage of moral causes rightfully demanding our attention; and while any individual person cannot respond to them all, we can strive as a community to act on many fronts. Still, one passage stands out this week, worthy of lifting up and addressing in light of the troubles that face our world today. It speaks to the issues of power and privilege and includes the verses that follow immediately after the Shema and V’ahavta.
10When the Eternal your God brings you into the land that was sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be assigned to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, 11houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, 12take heed that you do not forget the Eternal who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.
Each of us must ask: How does this commandment apply to me? How have I benefited from prosperous cities, furnished houses, and robust harvests? What blessings and privileges suffuse my life that I have not earned? An honest list, I suspect, would be long.
Now, while contemplating the ways our lives are comfortable on account of the work those who have gone before, we may be tempted to insist on a second list of things we have done for ourselves. Our tradition maintains, after all, that every person has the capacity to shape their own world and the world around them, and we do well to improve our lives and those of our families and communities. At the same time, this sense of accomplishment should never eclipse our gratitude.
That is what another passage in Deuteronomy comes to teach. Moses predicts that after we have inhabited the promised land, after we have built our own houses and amassed our own wealth, we will be tempted to say in our hearts, “My own power and might have created this prosperity for me” (Deut. 8:17). This is wrong, says the Torah: It is not ours by right, it is not ours by accomplishment, it is—according to the medieval scholar Bahya ben Asher—not even ours by luck. God is the source of all our power, which is given on the condition that we will use it ethically to secure justice in our cities and our nations.
The righteous activism of recent years and months has amplified the implications of this ancient teaching. Systems, laws, and policies that protect and defend the power of whiteness must be opposed, to be replaced with antiracist measures that seek to bring our society into balance. The hegemony of male dominance and the assumed authority that men have over everyone else must come to an end, supplanted by expansive and respectful gender equity. The voices of the enfranchised few, heeded by leaders in every level of society, must be quieted to make room for the stories and perspectives of the marginalized to receive their due.
I have tried, along with many in our sacred community, to direct my power toward achieving justice; it has not been enough. Our work is far from done. Deeper introspection, profounder appreciation of our privilege, and firmer resolve to bring tikkun to an America shattered by oppression are demanded by the human conscience and the Torah’s most urgent cry. We may experience this responsibility as a burden; I know I find these commitments hard, at times exhausting. But it is the same burden as the “yoke of Torah,” the weight of the sacred obligations that bring us into a state of true freedom.
So long as the systems of oppression persist, they enslave all of us; our liberation depends upon our sincere commitment to justice.
I am not going to conclude with everyone’s favorite line of Pirkei Avot, that “ours is not to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it” (2:21) – because in my experience, Rabbi Tarfon’s signature teaching is too often a crutch that exonerates laziness. Rather, let us say that ours is to complete the work – why else conclude every service with the words of Aleinu, which call us to the sacred work of repair?
Our commitment is לְתַקֵּן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי, “to bring healing to the world with the majesty of God.” This divine majesty is what parashat Va-etchanan exhorts us to acknowledge, and the healing for which we strive can best be known by its most powerful name: freedom.
 Moses says that possibly your arrogance will become such that you ascribe your affluence to your horoscope. The word כחי would refer to influences from outer space, astrological in nature, the word עצם ידי would refer to sub-terrestrial influences, demons resident below earth. (Translation from Sefaria.)
ואמרת בלבבך כחי ועוצם ידי. יאמר אולי יגבה לבך כשתראה שפע הטובה הבאה אליך ותאמר כי זה מצד המזל, ואמרת בלבבך כחי כח מזלי למעלה שתחשוב שיש מזל לישראל ועוצם ידי למטה עשה לי את החיל הזה.
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