Oh Freedom: Bishalah 5781

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom
Oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

These stirring words from the post-Civil War anthem have been recorded and performed at important moments in American history. Odetta recorded a great version in 1956. Joan Baez performed it in 1963 at the March on Washington. The song gives me the chills, because it holds up freedom as the greatest good, greater than life itself. Black history month begins on Monday, and this is an appropriate moment to think about the differential experience of freedom in this land.

My brother just digitized a 1975 recording of my great grandparents, Sarah and Sam Mazer, who arrived in America on February 2, 1910. Sam was fleeing the Russian army’s “khopers” who could have conscripted him for 25 years. Both were eager to live free in America, and with many ups and downs, they did. This land was and is a place of freedom and opportunity for most American Jews. But for the brutalized people who first sang, “Oh Freedom,” America was not a land of freedom and opportunity, but of enslavement, cruelty, terror, and oppression.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad depicts a desperate flight from slavery to freedom through the experience of Cora. In the following passage she and Caesar have narrowly escaped capture:

They stopped running when they realized they had no inkling of where they were headed. Cora saw nothing for the darkness and her tears. Caesar had rescued his waterskin but they had lost the rest of their provisions. They had lost Lovey. He oriented himself with the constellations and the runaways stumbled on, impelled into the night. They didn’t speak for hours. From the trunk of their scheme, choices and decisions sprouted like branches and shoots. If they had turned the girl back at the swamp. If they had taken a deeper route around the farms. If Cora had taken the rear and been the one grabbed by the two men. If they had never left at all.

No wonder that the song “Oh Freedom” asserts that freedom is the greatest good, greater than life itself. Nothing is certain in this life, but a decision to turn from slavery to freedom requires courage, strength, and fortune.

For many oppressed people, faced with no realistic path to freedom, accommodation has seemed the only path to survival. This was certainly the case for ancient Israel when they finally escaped Egypt. Yes, at first, they were thrilled, marching with their hands thrust proudly in the air, ובני ישראל יוצאים ביד רמה, but when they heard Pharaoh’s chariots approaching, their elation evaporated, and terror set in. Ahead of them was the sea, and behind them was the enemy. As my favorite Cohn Brothers character says in Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, “We’re in a tight spot.”

In a passage dripping with sarcasm and bitterness, the Israelites taunt Moshe.  The Torah relates:

שמות פרשת בשלח פרק יד פסוק יא – יג, יא-יג. (יא) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם: (יב) הֲלֹא זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת מִצְרָיִם כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת מִצְרַיִם מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר: (יג) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה’ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד עוֹלָם:

Greatly frightened the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת מִצְרַיִם מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר: They were saying: We’d rather serve Pharaoh as a slave than lie here in our graves.

This verse is the inverse of the African American spiritual. In fact, I suspect that whoever composed Oh Freedom was well aware of the verse in Exodus, and deliberately inverted it. That is brilliant, and admirable, but who could summon such strength?  How would we react to the terror of Pharaoh’s army encroaching, or of the slave catchers with their dogs in hot pursuit of those escaping on the underground railroad?

People respond to terror in unpredictable ways, guided by emotion as much as intellect. The brain structure known as the amygdala is responsible for our flight or fight reflexes, and it is hard to know why one person, or even one animal will choose to fight to the end, while another will succumb without a struggle.

In the Talmud Yerushalmi we read that when Pharaoh approached, the people broke into four factions. One group wanted to fight; one wanted to pray; one wanted to surrender; one wanted to jump into the sea and drown themselves.

תלמוד ירושלמי (ונציה) מסכת תענית פרק ב הלכה ה

ארבע כיתים נעשו אבותינו על הים אחת אומרת נפול לים ואחת אומרת נחזור למצרים ואחת אומרת נעשה עמהן מלחמה ואחת אומרת נצווח כנגדן זו שאמרה נפול לים אמר להן משה התייצבו וראו את ישועת יי’ וגו’ וזו שאמרה נחזור למצרים אמר להן משה כי את אשר ראיתם את מצרי’ היום הזה וגו’ וזו שאמרה נעשה עמהן מלחמה אמר להן משה יי’ ילחם לכם וזו שאמרה נצווח כנגדן אמר להן משה ואת’ תחרישון

Moses, according to the Midrash, addressed each sub-group in the verses from Exodus 14:

“But Moses said to the people, ‘Have no fear!’ Stand by and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (With due respect to JPS, they are a bit too polite—ואתם תחרישון means now you shut up!”) There is a time for every response—but not now, says Moses.

The thing is that you can understand each of the instinctive responses. Israel is still a young people, unaccustomed to responsibility for its own welfare. You could say that they are almost like toddlers, switching suddenly from giddy joy, to frustration and to fear.

In fact, you can read the Torah as a description of developmental stages. Genesis is the book of ancestors and birth; Exodus is the book of early childhood featuring strong, unregulated emotions of fear, frustration and joy; Leviticus is like latency, when elementary age children learn how to follow routines and take care of themselves; Numbers is of course the book of puberty and teenage rebellion—featuring the angry rejection of authority, and self-destructive behaviors; Deuteronomy is the long farewell—Moses as the parent preparing his kids to leave for college, proud and worried all at once.

What is true of individuals also happens with groups. It has been said that group dynamics go through stages—forming, norming, storming and performing (the order varies)—which matches the Torah’s description and my own observations.

Of course, development isn’t entirely linear, not in the Torah and not in our lives. We oscillate between courage and fear, competence and failure, clarity and confusion. I’d venture that many of us have spent the past year of pandemic, and perhaps the past four years of political chaos oscillating between principled protest, and despondent resignation. We can and we should celebrate those who have taken effective action, but we also must understand the flight instinct of self-preservation. If we don’t recognize these contradictory impulses in ourselves then we cannot address our predicament effectively.

What then is the source of courage, of conviction, and of strength that can motivate a person, an entire people, to stand up for their freedom, no matter what the cost? It is the most mysterious reservoir of strength that exists. Faith. When an oppressed people summons the faith that they deserve dignity, that they deserve to be free, then they become brave and bold. We may not be facing dangers as dire as the Israelite slaves leaving Egypt or, Black slaves escaping American plantations, but the challenges we face today are real enough. We look to these earlier examples for a profile in courage, the courage to live free.

Just before the Song of the Sea, Exodus 14 ends with these powerful words:

שמות פרשת בשלח פרק יד פסוק לא, לא

(לא) וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה’ וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ:  

Then Israel saw the mighty acts performed by the Lord in Egypt; the people revered the Lord, and they had faith in the Lord and in God’s servant Moses. It was faith that made the people strong, that let them lift their feet and march to freedom, and it was faith that prepared them to sing, all together, with courage and joy. In our own way, in our own time, in our own place, let us have faith that we can regroup, rebuild, and renew our holy congregations. Let us sing a new song of freedom and joy.