This week we begin to read the Book of Exodus, parasha Shemot. It begins with the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt by a Pharoah who, the Torah informs us, did not know of the contributions of the Jewish people to Egyptian society. The parasha proceeds with the liberation of our people and culminates in the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. As we know The Festival of Passover commemorates our liberation from Egypt, freedom from the tyranny of oppression. The Festival of Shavuot, commemorates the giving of the Law. These two holidays are joined together by the 49 days of the counting of the omer. Thus, the connection of the Festival of Freedom with the Festival of the Giving of the Law teaches us that without Law there can be no freedom. The two are inextricably linked.
This week we watched in shock, anger and horror as an unruly and violent mob invaded our Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the results of a fair and legitimate democratic election for the President of the US. Honoring the rule of law is at the core of our democracy. Those seeking to subvert the rule of law are the enemies of freedom, not its champions.
My colleague Rabbi Leonard Matanky observes that the morning started off by the President exhorting his supporters to “show strength and be strong”. In the end, the ones who showed strength and were strong were those Republican and Democrat legislators who refused to be deterred but worked through the night to complete the democratic process that had been interrupted. Through their show of strength and their determination the rule of law prevailed and our system of government survived.
In 597 BCE the King of Babylonia conquered Jerusalem and exiled a portion of the population to Babylon. Settled in a strange land, disoriented, their lives turned upside down, the exiles wrote to the prophet Jeremiah for advice. He sent them a letter, urging them to build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children in their new land. Above all, he said, “Pray for the welfare of the city where I have sent you, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Thus the rabbis instituted the practice of praying for the government into our order of prayers. Only in praying for and working toward the welfare of society as a whole can we, as individuals and as a Jewish community, assure our own welfare, happiness and prosperity. Only through the fulfillment of democratic ideals and the democratic process can we attain the Biblical ideals of freedom, justice, and the equality under the law. Imperfect as democracy may be, it is still the best form of government we know for the fulfillment of G-d’s desire to establish a society that affirms human dignity and social decency, and maintains communal harmony.
In 1893, a 33-year-old English professor from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Katherine Lee Bates, inspired by a trip she took across the country by train, wrote a poem she called “Pike’s Peak”. The poem was set to music and in 1910 it was published as “America the Beautiful”. One of the verses reads like a prayer:
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
With the help of G-d may we work together toward a more perfect union. Let us pray and work toward a renewed commitment to social order, domestic tranquility and equality under the law. May we begin to heal a nation torn by political and racial unrest, by extreme economic disparities; a nation grieving under the weight of a widespread and deadly pandemic. And may G-d bless America.
Photo: Sayed F. Hashimi on Unsplash.com