Bo 5,783

Freedom to serve

Parashah Bo is the penultimate portion in the narrative known in the tradition as “Yetziat Mitzraim”, or the Exodus from Egypt.  At the heart of the story of the Exodus is not just our freedom from oppression but our freedom to serve God.  In the opening of this week’s parashah we hear again Moses’s challenge to Pharaoh: “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.’”  Most of us know the refrain “let my people go”, far fewer recall that it is in order to serve God.

Unfortunately, a growing number of Jews no longer even believe in God to serve.  How can we be servants of God, how can we recite Shema Israel, if we do not believe? Yet how can we believe in God given our knowledge of history and science that contradicts aspects of the stories in the Torah, including the Exodus; moreover, how can we believe in God given some of the Torah’s unethical teachings, such as commanded genocide?  We must come back to the essence of our teaching of God, understanding that the name for God, YHVH, is a form of the verb “to be” in Hebrew.  Our ancestors are teaching that “is” and “all that is” is that which we call God.  Think of God as a synonym for “conscious being”, “the life force”, or “the ultimate mystery of existence”.  Think of God as a verb, “being or becoming” more than a noun, a being.  Understand that whatever it is, it is one, and thus all that is, including you and me and the universe itself, is part of the one as it is part of us.  We play a small, but significant, part in the unfolding of what is.  We can’t blame anyone out there for what is so, we can only take responsibility for what is. Consider our relationship to existence not as a matter of belief, but as a matter of faith that we do make a difference.

This is an important spiritual truth.  While we are part of an overwhelming and unfathomable cosmos, we have ultimate responsibility for our part in that reality.  Yes, it is spiritual to look after oneself and one’s relationships and seek meaning in one’s life.  And it is also deeply spiritual to see oneself as connected with all humanity and have concern for and take action to lessen the cruelty in this world – from the indefinite detention of young people who have come here for refuge as did so many of our families in generations past, to the inane policy of imprisoning children for minor offences.  It is part of our spiritual commitment as Jews hearing the words of Torah to care about and do something to achieve justice for the First Nations of this land.  It is an aspect of our faith tradition to understand the teaching that we are here to preserve and work with love this earth with which we and all creatures have been blessed.  This responsibility for the other – the environment, other animals, and all humanity – is at the core of service to God.  This is what Judaism teaches, this is what Jews are called to do.

With humility, we must break the bonds that holds us back from spiritual action: “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.”

Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins

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