Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Mishpatim

This week (February 20), one hundred twenty-two years ago, Frederick Douglass attended a gathering of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. At this meeting, he came to the platform for recognition. He received a standing ovation for his lifetime commitment to egalitarian rights. He then went home, and at the age of 77, he died of a heart attack. He was an amazing man. An orator, statesman, historian, passionate champion for equal rights for people regardless of race or gender, and even more passionate abolitionist, Douglass was a former slave who dedicated his life to the cause of freedom.

February is African-American history month. Our nation chose February, in part, because of Frederick Douglass. Now, I find it horrific that we have a month to study African American history because we do not include it as part of a normal American history curriculum. If Mr. Douglass’ legacy really mattered to the whole country, we would re-write our textbooks so that “Minority Studies” became the fabric woven into the whole American story. Our narrowly focused look at American History through a primary lens of where White America comes from most certainly skews the way in which we read our Constitution, operate life in our communities, and, most difficultly, see ourselves in greater and lesser status in our inter-human relationships. We are ill prepared to live together.

Even while religious traditions argue that prophecy ended with each one’s sacred texts, I am reminded of a favored quote from Einstein (you know I use it a lot), “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” This week, we read 21st-century prophecy from the Torah portion “Mishpatim.”
Last week, we read of the epiphany at Sinai. Amidst the thunderous clouds and lightning strikes atop the mountain, God delivered the rules of freedom to the people. We cannot murder or steal, or invoke false witness. We cannot ignore our families, live in a state of jealousy over what neighbors have … or over their relationships. If we fail in these undertakings, we destroy the fabric of society and risk losing the most precious gifts of freedom with which God just delivered to our people.

This week, we read about the rules of slavery and property ownership (including people).In the midst of African-American history month, we are reading about how one is to treat and compensate slaves. I pray that I am not the only one who, year after year, aches over this satire in timing. So, I dive back into tradition and have to remind myself that the purpose of Torah is to begin conversation, not to give us dogmatic rules. Last week we had to interpret what the “rules” compelled us to do with and for each other. This week, our calling brings more urgency. Slavery is wrong. Slavery is a crime against humanity and God. Ultimately, Torah screams at us to scream back, “We just experienced freedom from slavery and the miracle of redemption! We cannot do that to another!” Our human condition roots in our own lack of faith. We create hierarchies between people’s stereotypes every day. Society teaches us that people matter more or less because of their race, religion, gender, origins, or orientations. I cannot relegate to coincidence that this week brings this Torah portion and Frederick Douglass’ story into confluence; not with what is happening around us.

Prophetically, in the year 2017, Torah screams at us to take a look at what we are doing to each other. Just freed from slavery, we are oppressing each other. In our nation, a mere two hundred fifty years is but a watch in God’s night. The one hundred fifty years a since our bloodiest battle against each other over (in the eyes of most historians), who has a right to own each other as property is a blink of God’s eye. This history is, however, our eternity. Because it did not happen in our personal memory, we forget the evils of slavery and oppression. We have forgotten the ovens of Auschwitz. We have forgotten the so many who came to lands such as our own seeking refuge and liberty … and life. Torah warns us about just how short our memory can be, and how destructive our lapses are in holding sacred everything we claim to hold dear … including the dignity of the God to whom we all pray. The madness proliferating around us; the renewed diminution of human rights by those powerful enough to deny human dignity is appalling. Douglass taught us, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” The ills we seek to impose on each other come at the cost of our own liberties and freedoms. This is, always has been and always will be antithetical to the mandate of freedom, decency, and liberty that Torah demands from us and for which this Sabbath Day is the weekly reminder.

Wake up America! Light Shabbat candles. Take the day of God (in whichever your tradition) as a respite from the storm. Rethink the ego-driven need for power. Pray for the ability to hear and share … and love beyond the narrowness that enslaves each of us to some form of dogmatic bigotry. I don’t care where you pray, where you live, with whom you sleep, or what language you speak. Each of us comes from the same stuff and bleed when injured. Shabbat is upon us. Let’s pay attention to how best honor each other. Shabbat Shalom!

This weekend, we welcome Danny Siegel to Monmouth Reform Temple. He is my Rabbi. He has not been ordained by any formal seminary, but so many of us cannot refer to him with any language other than to call him Rabbi Danny. Come join us! Check out our website for details!