By Rabbi Neil Sandler / email@example.com
Baruch atta Adonai ga’al Yisrael: “Praised are You, Adonai, who redeems Israel.”
These words, which we offer each morning immediately before the Amidah, bring us back to the foundational story of our people, Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. We invoke the memory of that event every day because only G-d’s gracious act of taking our ancestors out of oppression and bondage enabled us to become a people. In our Shacharit service, as we are about to turn to G-d with the words of the central prayer of any service, the Amidah, we remind ourselves that, absent the Exodus, we would not be able to turn to G-d in prayer today. The Exodus and the end of oppression made possible every opportunity that followed it. So we bless G-d.
In recent days we have witnessed events, I pray, that we will come to view as historic. For me, these moments evoke an awareness of G-d’s redemptive power.
Soon the Confederate battle flag will be recognized by all state governments, where it is still relevant, as an artifact, a piece of history to be consigned to the past. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has exercised his power to remove that flag from the state Capitol grounds. All of us anticipate that the South Carolina Legislature will soon act similarly. It is a continuing heartbreak to know that the massacre of nine innocent worshippers in a Charleston church hastened this inevitable decision.
Yes, inevitable. Because the movement toward liberation and the end of oppression is inexorable, if not always guaranteed. “Oppression” is not the same as during pre-Civil War slavery. But listen to African-Americans regarding how they perceive the Confederate flag flying today on the grounds of state Capitols and you will understand the oppressive quality of this “symbol of our Southern heritage.”
The stirring spirituals of oppressed black slaves reflected their self-image; they thought of themselves as 19th-century heirs of our oppressed ancestors in Egypt. Now, with the removal of the Confederate flag, we again bless G-d, “Praised are You, Adonai, who redeems Israel.” Thank you, Holy One, for giving us the insight and wisdom to remove a lingering symbol of oppression.
The second historic moment occurred Friday, June 26. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that the movement toward liberation from oppression is inexorable when it said that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Much has been said by those who support and oppose this decision. But as Jews, who know the dignity-robbing grip of oppression and the ennobling liberation that enabled us to determine our direction, our experience provides us with a compelling way to understand the meaning of the ruling.
More than 15 years ago, when I served a congregation in Des Moines, Iowa, I spoke at a Stop the Hate Rally at the Iowa Capitol. The issue was hate speech directed at the gay and lesbian community. This, in part, is what I said that day:
“This week the Jewish community will begin to celebrate Passover, its Festival of Freedom. As we are urged to re-experience the Exodus from Egypt, we remind ourselves today of our duty to stand with all who are enslaved. We reject the demeaning language, images and actions promulgated by some in society today that seek to keep gay and lesbian neighbors enslaved by hateful, stereotypic images.”
The issue is different today, but the image I shared then is still apt. In significant measure, the Supreme Court’s ruling freed the bound. The court brought to a welcome and complete end a form of oppression that had prevented marriage to those who had created a loving relationship with someone of the same gender. Now they are free to express their mutual love in marriage.
As Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, so eloquently but simply framed it:
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Gays and lesbians may not view themselves as heirs of our oppressed ancestors in Egypt. Nonetheless, I bless G-d. Thank you, Holy One, for providing us with leaders whose decision enables all adults in our country to marry in accordance with the sexuality with which You have endowed them.
Seldom do we have the opportunity to witness history — acts and actions that transform people and their societies. I hope and believe we are witnessing two of them.
Baruch atta Adonai ga’al Yisrael: “Praised are You, Adonai, who redeems Israel.” And we pray, all who are oppressed in some manner.
Rabbi Sandler is the senior rabbi at Ahavath Achim Synagogue.