D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Kol Nidre Evening 5781
Power and glory by Phil Ochs
Come and take a walk with me through this green and growing land
Walk through the meadows and the mountains and the sand
Walk through the valleys and the rivers and the plains
Walk through the sun and walk through the rain
Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)
In the book of Exodus, we read the story of Passover. We read about the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. After 400 years of slavery they finally have their first taste of freedom. So, what do they do with that first taste of freedom? Well, technically they celebrate by dancing and playing timbrels. I’ll give ‘em that. But three days later, when they arrive at Marah in the wilderness, they find the water tastes bitter. So, they complain. They whine. They pitch a fit. Ok, that’s understandable. The water tasted bitter. That would be disappointing after coming out of slavery.
Then, not long after that, they come to the wilderness of Sin, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from Egypt. (Ex. 16:1) They walk through a land filled with power and glory as written by Phil Ochs in the song I just sang, beauty that words cannot recall. Phil Ochs wrote those words about America but they fit just fine here. Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom, her glory shall rest on us all.
And what did the Israelites say in response to their new found freedom:
מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְיָ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֨נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאָכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּי־הֽוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֨נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כָּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּֽרָעָֽב:
If only we had died in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into the wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death (Ex. 16:3)
Bottom line, the Israelites used their new found freedom in their new found land, to complain. And yes, we can laugh about the whiny Israelites. We can be annoyed about their pettiness and their impatience. But the truth is, they were free and they used their freedom to speak their minds. This was not something they could do so easily when they were slaves.
This past summer I traveled around Vermont—through as Phil Ochs wrote, this green and growing land. As a relatively new resident of Vermont, I took the opportunity since travel beyond the Vermont border is kind of a pain.
I traveled on two separate weeks. The first week I stayed in Sheffield just north of St. Johnsbury and the second week I was in St. Albans just north of Burlington. On both occasions I was close to Canada. When I was in Sheffield I took a drive up to Derby where I had read about the local library sitting both in the United States and in Canada. The building was of course closed but I could walk around outside.
Last week I talked about using our imagination during this pandemic. In this situation I used my imagination --seeing myself a former librarian, inside this beautiful library and I used my imagination to see myself cross over into one of my favorite vacation spots, Canada. But my imagination couldn’t ignore the police cars all over the town blocking any access to the border.
There is a peace arch on the border of Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia- a 67-foot high testament to the close ties between Canada and the United States. Inscribed on one side are the words – interesting to read on this Yom Kippur evening – May these gates never be closed, a reminder of the close to 5,525 miles of un-militarized border separating Canada and the U.S. For almost 100 years those words have been respected – until the pandemic shut down the border indefinitely.
Because of the pandemic US citizens are persona non grata in Canada. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that my movements are restricted at a border I have been crossing my whole life. But, do I think my civil rights are being violated because I can’t cross a border I’ve been crossing my entire life? I do not. Closing the border is keeping Americans and particularly Canadians, safe.
Yes, we live in a free society but does that mean we can do anything we want? Of course not. Does that mean those who enforce the law can do anything they want? Of course not. Does being told to wear a mask mean your civil rights are being violated? I say no. It certainly cannot compare with what happened to George Floyd, lying face down on the ground – who before succumbing to a policeman’s knee on his neck, cried out numerous times, I can’t breathe. Are our civil rights violated when it saves lives or when a man is killed by the police for no apparent reason?
As theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory wrote: We all share a supreme devotion to the hard-won freedoms of the American people. Yet to be worthy of retaining our freedoms we must not lose our understanding of the essential nature of freedom. Freedom means more than mere emancipation…… The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist in the fact that “I can act as I desire.” ….. [man] is free in doing; he is not free in doing evil. To choose evil is to fail to be free. Freedom is a gift which may be taken away from us and it has nothing to do with wearing a mask or not being able to attend a super spreader event.
I may have been restricted from crossing the border into Canada that day but I had nothing to fear from all those policemen. Unfortunately, that is not true for so many in this country who have to be on guard every time they leave their homes.
As Heschel also wrote: How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some, inevitably ends as inequality of all. Freedom is connected to equality.
We may believe in the Torah’s declaration to love your neighbor, but then we make it impossible for the people we are supposed to love, to be our neighbor. That includes right here in Vermont, right on our doorstep. Just in the last few weeks, Tabitha Moore, the president of the Rutland chapter of the NAACP has been forced to move out of her home because of continual racially motivated harassment, including threats, acts of vandalism and the targeting of her daughter on Facebook.
At Sinai God didn’t begin by saying, “I am the Lord your God Who created heaven and earth.” God began by saying, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Judaism dares to think that freedom is the source of all being.
But freedom and equality as Tabitha Moore knows all too well, are challenges and oftentimes a burden against which we as a society sometimes rebel. As Heschel writes: We must bear many burdens to have the strength to carry out one act of freedom.
In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:9) we read: "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he save an entire world." That's why we wear masks and that's why the world is in an uproar about George Floyd.
Philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once said: The serious threat to our democracy…. is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states…… The battlefield is …… here – within ourselves and our institutions.
On this Yom Kippur evening we ask for forgiveness from our sins. This year it feels as if asking for forgiveness isn't nearly enough. In some ways it doesn't feel like forgiveness even cuts it. We just need to do better. In so many ways our very lives depend on it. The battlefield is here within ourselves and our institutions.
I began with the words of Phil Ochs and I'll end with the words of Phil Ochs:
Days of Decision by Phil Ochs
Oh, the shadows of doubt are in many a mind
Lookin' for an answer they're never gonna find
But they'd better decide 'cause they're runnin' out of time
For these are the days of decision
There's a change in the wind, and a split in the road
You can do what's right or you can do what you are told
And the prize of the victory will belong to the bold
Yes, these are the days of decision.
G'mar Chatima Tova -- wishing all of you an easy fast.
 Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York : Rhinehart, 1941) 3
1] Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York : Rhinehart, 1941) 3
G’mar chatima Tova
 BBC News. “Americans Go Home: Tension at the Canada-US Border.” https://www.msn.com/en-xl/news/other/americans-go-home-tension-at-the-canada-us-border/ar-BB17TeUj (Accessed October 2020)
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Insecurity of Freedom. (Philadelphia : JPS, 1966) 13
 Ibid. 87
 Ibid. 90
 Ibid. 12
 Ibid. 63
 Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York : Rhinehart, 1941) 3