November 21, 2018

Personal Liberation

How does one prepare for freedom?

One Jewish answer is found in the reading of the four special portions read along with the regular Torah portions in the weeks before Passover. This coming Shabbat, for example, not only do we read Torah portion Tetzaveh, but we also read three verses from Deuteronomy (25:17-19).

Each of these four special portions is known by a unique name. The four special readings are:

Shekalim, which means "shekels" or "weights," is where we read about the census of the Israelites conducted through each one giving a half shekel to the sanctuary (Exodus 30:11-16). We read Shekalim along with Torah portion Mishpatim on Feb. 21.

In Zachor, meaning "remember," we are bidden to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). We read Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim.

Parah, meaning "cow," is where we read of the purification ritual of the parah adumah, the red heifer, from Numbers 19:1-22. This year we read Parashat Parah on March 13 with Torah portion Ki Tissa.

In HaChodesh, meaning "the month" or "this month," we read of the actual Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-20) on March 20.

I have used these parshiyot as a guide to one aspect of a Jewish view of liberation. This Jewish idea of liberation starts with the notion that we do not seek individual salvation but communal redemption. It is often times in those relations with others, family, friends, community, that we find ourselves in the shackles of anger and disappointment, and it is in the realm of our connections to each other, and not only with God, that we ought seek redemptive lives.

On Shabbat Shekalim, we are counted in the community by giving one half shekel. Several notions are significant here. First, if we want to find liberation, we must connect with a community. Second, the act of connecting with a community is an act of generosity. Synagogues and other spiritual communities are often commodities that people consume; once a Hebrew school education has been consumed, for example, people often leave. From the perspective of Shekalim, we join by giving, not by taking, and the primary thing we give is generosity of spirit. We try to bless each other with our presence, not just meet our own needs. And when we slip, we bless each other through forgiveness and working through. We recall that we do not arrive whole; we give a half shekel to recall that we seek to complete ourselves in relation to others.

On Shabbat Zachor, we remember Amalek, the nemesis of Israel. In traditional literature, Amalek is usually figured as the enemy without — the haters of Israel. From the spiritual perspective, however, Amalek can be "the enemy within." (See Rabbi Elijah Schochet’s book by that name.) On this Shabbat we recall those many things that can destroy those spiritual communities, from the family on up, that we do join and create. We often find that anger, resentment, grudges, hurts and slights that we do not deal with in mature ways can fester and cause us to act destructively. We cannot find our way to liberation if we do not combat our own Amalek-like behaviors.

On Shabbat Parah we learn of the purification rituals regarding one who has come into contact with the dead. From the point of view of liberation, we learn that we cannot find true spiritual liberation if we do not allow certain parts of us to die. In the Chasidic tradition, this "death of ego" is sometimes referred as bitual ha-anochi, the effacement of the self. It is ego-self that can stand between us and the experience of the divine. It is usually the ego- self that often stands in the way of forgiveness, empathy, understanding, patience and mindfulness. If we want liberation, we must be willing to let go of destructive aspects of the ego, and be purified of aspects of the self that enslave us.

On Shabbat HaChodesh, we find that the time to move is now. We often move ever so slowly in our work with ourselves and others. The night of the Exodus tells that the time to move is now — the freedom train is leaving the station and baggage limit is strict. We hold on to our excess baggage from inertia, from laziness. Those less-than-noble thoughts, emotions and behaviors do not become us. We can let them go, and lovingly encourage others to let theirs go as well.

Liberation and redemption have many forms. I’ve touched on only one scheme here. I know from my work and work with others that sometimes the greatest redemption we can achieve is with other people. And the time to work is now.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation and provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California campus.