Three Freedom Songs – A Jewish Take on Liberation
Delivered at Temple Beth El, January 10, 2020
It feels good to be here on this bima. I love this place. We are blessed with incredibly talented clergy: Rabbi Knight, Rabbi Klass and Cantor Thomas. They have great voices – voices of wisdom, voices of kindness, they even have musical voices. How lucky we are!
Before I was an honorary rabbi of Beth El and regularly led services on this bima, I’d sometimes get so swept up in the services I’d forget to mute my microphone during songs. I’d sing so loudly that my husband, Chip, from the pews, would passionately motion for me to shut off my lavalier.
The Zohar, our Jewish mystical text, agrees with Chip. It teaches: “He who wishes to chant to God in a loud voice, should possess a voice which is pleasant to others; if not he should avoid praying aloud.”
It’s a good thing that our clergy can sing because this year’s comparative religion topic of liberation requires song – especially from the Jewish perspective.
You see many couples have “their song.” Perhaps it was a song that was played at their moment of meeting or for their first dance at their wedding. 21 years ago, Chip and I, as our much younger selves, danced to song “I’ll be there” by The Jackson Five.
The Mi Chamocha is “our song” as a Jewish people — in relationship with each other and in relationship with God.
This sermon is entitled “Three Freedom Songs.” I’ll start first with “our song” as a Jewish people – the Mi Chamocha.
This week in our Torah, we close the book on Genesis and descend to Egypt as Jacob’s family of seventy seeking refuge from famine.
In the next four weeks of the Torah’s narrative – encompassing the first 15 chapters of Exodus – we become an enslaved people so numerous that we are a threat to the Pharoah who seeks to kill the boys born to us. God hears our cries, sends us leadership, and we find the strength to escape.
When we cross through the sea and see Pharaoh’s armies drowning in the waters behind us, we first sing “our song.”
Who is like s you, O God, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?
Moses led the men in song. Miriam led the women in song. Today as part of the mitzvah called zecher l’yetziat mitrayim – remembering the Exodus from Egypt, twice daily we are meant to sing the song in prayer. Weekly we remember the Exodus as part of our Shabbat kiddush (we are not slaves to any job or person). Annually we remember the Exodus through the Passover seder.
Liberation consciousness is part of our Jewish DNA. It is part of Jewish memory.
The Mi Chamocha was our “first song” when we dated as the Jewish people and knew it was right. Sinai, was our “wedding” where we made our vows.
We said “I do” to God. We said “I do” to being part of the Jewish people — for better or for worse. We said “I do” to the obligation that marriage entails and accepted the ketubah, the Torah, the marriage contract that requires us to work for freedom for all – truth, justice, equality, human rights, human dignity, the Sabbath and hundreds more ideals that our world just and our lives beautiful.
On a macro-level, the Exodus liberation reflects our birth as a nation.
Let us fast forward more than 3000 years to Freedom Song #2 – the Partisan’s Song.
Our second most monumental moment of liberation was at the close of World War II when we were liberated from concentration camps – the 40,000 or so places where Jews were held as slave laborers. And when we were freed from the more than twenty Nazi occupied countries where we were terrorized.
The Partisan’s Song represents the fight for freedom. There were 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who hid in forests, maintained an underground Jewish community of those who escaped and who fought the Nazis. Like the Mi Chamocha, the Partisan’s Song, inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, represented the power of resistance.
Here are the Jewish freedom fighter’s words:
Never say that you are walking the final road. Though leaden skies obscure blue days. The hour we have been longing for will still come.Our steps will drum – we are here!
The morning sun will tinge our today with gold. And yesterday will vanish with the enemy. But if the sun and the dawn are delayed – like a watchword this song will go from generation to generation.
Like the Shema and like the Mi Chamocha, the Partisan’s song was meant to be sung from generation to generation.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated on January 27 because that was the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, yet in from mid-1944 to mid-1945, the Allied powers liberated one concentration camp after the next:
July 1944 Majdanek. February 1945 Gross-Rosen. April 1945 Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Dachau. These are just some of the many dates on which Jewish souls were saved.
Like in the book of Exodus, liberation was only the first step on the journey to freedom. 850,000 survivors gathered at Displaced Persons camps.
Homeless, stateless, penniless, bereft, many having lost every last relative. What did they do?
They turned to one another and rebuilt their lives, their families, their Jewish community. In Bergen Belsen, where death once reigned, Jews built schools, created newspapers, set up courts and cultural and social institutions.
When one woman, Lilly Friedman, fell in love with her soon to be husband, Ludwig, she told him she always dreamt of getting married in a white dress. She was tall and still emaciated. How could he find such a dress in Bergan Belsen? He traded two pounds of coffee and some packs of cigarettes for a white parachute and a seamstress would make it. Bride after bride would borrow it and be wed in it too.
In 1946, 1,070 marriages took place in the Bergen Belsen camp alone; the first year following liberation saw six to seven weddings a day – sometimes even fifty in one week.
From 1946-1948, the record global birthrate was in the survivor’s camps. In the months after liberation, 2000 babies were born.
Just as the Exodus from Egypt was part one of liberation and standing at Sinai was part two, liberation from the camps was step one and working to rebuild Jewish community was step two. Additional steps involved working to support human rights for all and to attain independence in our homeland for which we had longed for 2000 years and actively worked for 60 years.
Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote, “Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake.”
Too much is at stake to not fight for liberation each and every day.
Which brings me to Freedom Song #3 – the song we sang as Jews with our African American neighbors in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. We shall overcome.
Cantor: We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome, some day Oh, deep in my heart. I do believe. We shall overcome, some day.
Verse two says: We’ll walk hand in hand, some day. And verse three: We shall live in peace, some day.
As Jews, we are committed not only to singing our songs of redemption but to helping others sing songs of redemption, too.
During the years of the Holocaust, from 1933 to 1945, a quarter million Holocaust refugees arrived on our American shores (my father included.) Among them were approximately 2000 Jewish scholars from European academies.
In 1932, Albert Einstein resigned from his post in Germany in protest of the Nazi rise to power and accepted a position at Princeton.
Eleven refugee scholars were saved by the Hebrew Union College – the seminary where all the clergy on this bima were educated.
53 Refugees scholars taught at Historically black colleges and universities.
Historically black colleges and universities across the country helped saved these refugee scholars, in turn, these Jewish scholar helped teach, inspire, and integrate college campuses as part of the Civil Rights movement.
They broke boundaries and were not alone. Of any white group that engaged in the fight for Civil Rights, Jews were represented in disproportionate numbers. We knew that our liberation was tied up with the liberation of others.
The RAC, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism notes that: “Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Reform Movement were arrested with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in his 1965 March on Selma. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the RAC.”
We marched in Selma knowing full well what the horrors of a false narrative and pseudoscience of racial hierarchies can bring. And we march today… to stand with our African American neighbors, our immigrant neighbors, or LGBTQIA+ neighbors, our neighbors living in poverty.
The refrains of “our liberation song” have always played and continue to play in our minds as we work to help others.
We know that liberation inspires song… but there are days when we struggle to sing, not because we are off key but because we find ourselves in a dark place.
There are days when God does not want us to sing.
The Midrash teaches that as “the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the angels wanted to sing before God, and God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before Me?’
How can we sing in the face of suffering?
How can we sing when a thirteen year old dies at the Concord Mills mall caught in the crossfire?
How can we sing when antisemitism is rising? Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey.
How can we sing when a stabbing happens in a New York rabbi’s home on the seventh night of Chanukah as candles celebrating religious freedom and Jewish survival were about to be lit.
How can we sing, when this pat week the world stood frighteningly close to war and when in response to a US leader’s decision to kill of Gen. Soleimani, mourners in Iran’s streets shouted “death to Israel”?
How can we sing, when 176 innocent souls (most departing for home after their holiday break) die on their plane when it was accidentally shot down as it was departing from Tehran? I listened to some interviews with Canadian mourners who, when asked about placing blame, said they simply wanted peace.
This brings us back to Freedom Song Number #1.
In Hebrew, the song containing the Mi Chamocha is called Az Yashir. The song at the sea opens with the words, “Az yashir Moshe… And Moses will sing [this song].”
The words with which the song starts are in the future tense. The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that this phrase alludes to messianic times. Even in crossing the sea, there was a realization that the song was incomplete. Our freedom was temporary.
You see our story of liberation is not yet complete. Each one of you is part of it. You are needed to join the choir, to lift your voice, to make redemption a reality.
Through the work of Temple Beth El and through the work of the Greenspon Center, as Jews we work for criminal justice, racial justice, immigrant justice, and educational equity. At Queens University we will be taking on restorative justice and environmental justice too. Join us.
Freedom song #1, the Mi Chamocha teaches that liberation requires a movement from the Sea of Reeds to Sinai to accept the obligations that help all to be free.
Freedom song #2, the Partisan’s Song teaches that, as Jews, wherever we find ourselves oppressed we move resolutely forward keeping our community safe and strong.
Freedom song #3, We Shall Overcome, teaches the power of alliances and how fighting for others strengthens us all.
But there is one more song of liberation we need to add to the mix – a song of hope, Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. For as Jews, we have always held on to hope.
Cantor: Kol ode balevav P’nimah – Nefesh Yehudi homiyah
In the Jewish heart a Jewish spirit still sings…
Cantor: Ode lo avdah tikvatenu Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim: L’hiyot am chofshi b’artzenu eretz tzion v’Yerushalayim
Our hope is not lost, our hope of two thousand years, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
We yearn for freedom. We yearn to live in peace with our Palestinian siblings. We have always longed to be free in every land that we live.
We did sing at the shores of the sea in Exodus. We are singing as part of this service today. If we walk hand in hand, as a community and as allies to others who are oppressed, we will sing in the future a song of redemption.
Photo by Jesse Orrico