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WE HAVE TO STAY AWAKE

There are moments, like this one, when a day on the calendar stands up, as though on it’s own two feet, demanding attention---- as though crying out “Darsheni!”  “Interpret me! Make meaning of me!


Tonight, we find ourselves in exactly such a moment. 

As Americans, we note this weekend as a time for lifting up the memory and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We recall his calls for justice, and rededicate ourselves to his vision of freedom and equality. Fifty-six years after his death, we look at ourselves: our country, our world with wonderment, at how far we have come, and at how far we still have to go. 


There are moments, like this one, when the words of Torah beckon us inside: to wrap ourselves in its words, as a meditation, as a prayer, as a cry for help, and as a sign for hope. 


As people of the Book--- those who cling to Torah, we find ourselves in the midst of a story of our ancestors suffering. Here, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story of our people is one of enslavement, and of captivity. As modern readers of the text, we have the benefit of knowing the story of redemption that will follow. But for this moment, if we know only what our sacred story offers us, we find ourselves in the narrow places of Egypt. We hear only the moaning of the Israelites in bondage. 


As people of the world, members of the extended Jewish community--- the pages of the calendar turn, and we brace ourselves, as Sunday marks 100 days since October 7th. 100 days since a gruesome campaign of violence was waged throughout southern Israel, and notably: 100 days since more than 200 souls were kidnapped, and forced into a brutal captivity in Gaza. 


And here we are. 

Our souls and our psyches wrestle with it all: the deprivations and degradations; as well as the hopes and belief in redemption. 


What are we meant to do in moments like this? 


We look to Torah. We look to our prophets. 


Imagine with me for a moment, just like we do on Passover, that you are amongst those in Egypt--- enslaved to a Pharaoh who has no regard for your humanity. Your bondage goes beyond the shackles, and the back-breaking labor. Your bondage has become psychological, and spiritual. You can’t imagine anything but the narrowness of Egypt. Your heart and your mind won’t let you imagine freedom. 


In those moments, it will take something extraordinary to help you shift. It will take something outside the natural order of the world as you know it to help convince you that another world is possible. 


God appears.

God reveals God’s divine self first to Moses. 

And then, God says:


אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם


God tells Moses, I have heard the groanings of the Israelites because of their bondage in Egypt. (Exodus 6:5)


I hear their pain.I hear their suffering, God tells Moses.

And yet, we know that there is no magic switch for God to flip to ease their suffering, or to secure their freedom. Rather, it will take miracles. Literal “signs and wonders'' to soften the hardened heart of Pharaoh, to make him hear Moses’ plea to let my people go. 


It will take a long time. 

And when you are in bondage-- when you are suffering, every minute must feel like an eternity. 


For the Israelites, it would take time for them to believe God’s words when God speaks to Moses saying: 

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am יהוה. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (Exodus 6:6)

They cannot see it yet. 


Torah goes on to tell us that the Israelites would not listen to Moses’ because they were kotzer ruach— their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage. 


It would take frogs and locusts and blood in the Nile and repeated reports of Moses’ demanding their freedom from Pharaoh before they would be ready to take that next step. 


When you are in bondage, you begin to forget that freedom is possible. 

And that is why in every generation, it has been the prophets among us who rise up to remind us that a better world is possible.


In that spirit, I am reminded of the teachings of another prophet, who spoke into the hearts  and minds of people who were in the narrow place.


In 1965, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Oberlin Colleges’ commencement exercises. His address was titled “"Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"


In this address, he retells Washington Irvings’ famous story, Rip Van Winkle, noting that there is one part of the story that is often overlooked: 


[there] was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world - indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.

King goes on to talk about the challenges that come with living through periods of great change. In his time and context, he was speaking to a primarily white audience about the crucial importance of not closing their eyes to the dramatically shifting social realities of their day. He points out the real tragedy of sleeping through a revolution; of being asleep while the world around you changes. 


He continues: 

The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution….[A]ll I'm saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.


I believe that we too are living through a moment of great revolution: and it is painful, and it is violent, and would that we could sleep through it. We see the world changing around us in ways that scare us, and I know I am not alone in imagining it might not be so bad if we could close our eyes and wake up when it’s over. 


But we can’t. 

We have to remain awake– bleary eyed and battle worn though we are. 


I am struck by the parallels between the  moments in which King spoke those words, and the moment that Torah invites us into this week. Kings’ address at Oberlin is given just months after Bloody Sunday, the infamous attack in Selma on those marching for black voter rights and just months before President Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But on that warm June day in Ohio, Dr. King knew only the truth of that moment: and that was how much work there was still to do. 


Famously, Dr. King concluded that speech saying: 

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


The arc of the moral universe is long. 

The time it might take humanity to truly understand that we are tied in a single garment of destiny is long— it might feel, especially to those who wait, like an eternity. 


But, time does move forward. And that arc does bend toward justice. 


I think of our Israelite forebears: trapped in the reality of slavery, unable to imagine their future. 

And I think of our brothers and sisters tonight, who this weekend will mark 100 days in captivity in Gaza. 


We have to remain awake– bleary eyed and battle worn though we are. 


These hostages. These people. My God. The utter despair. 

I try to force myself to imagine what it feels like to be in captivity in Gaza right now and to make myself look at the despair. My God. 


And so what do we do? What can we do? 

We can commit to keeping the hostages at the top of the register. 

We can refuse to be cowed by the intensity of the culture of “sides” we are living in. 

We can refuse to be deterred from remembering them and fighting for them and praying for them and finding ways of keeping their names at the top of the register. 

Their names, above all else. 

We have to pursue them. Be unrelenting in our demands for  their release. 

We have to say their names in every place where another human being might hear them and realize, there is no greater mitzvah than redeeming the captives. 


We have to remain awake– bleary eyed and battle worn though we are. 


And so we say their names. 


Hersh. 

Shiri 

Kfir

Ariel

Noa 

Avinatan 

Guy

Amiram 

Tzachi 

Naama 

Youssef

Itzhak

Doron 

Gali

Ziv 

Daniella

Itay 

Yosi 

Eli

Egam

Idan

Matan

Eitan 

Yair

Keith

Omri

Bipin

Amiram

Oded

Chaim


I could go on. Those are just 30 of the suspected 136 souls who remain in Gaza tonight. Israelis. Jews. Bedouins. Arabs. Nepali. French. American. 


136 human beings whose destiny is wrapped up with our own. 


And so tonight, as we stand in this place in time— feeling the weight of our history, the pain of our present situation, we must stay awake and continue to envision a future world. We have to believe that there is redemption on the other side of these narrow places. 


I want to conclude with the words of one more prophetic voice, from Moses, to Dr. King, to Rachel Goldberg, the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, one of the hostages. 


Her poem, called One Tiny Seed. 



One Tiny Seed

BY Rachel Goldberg


There is a lullaby that says, "Your mother will cry a thousand tears before you grow to be a man."


I have cried a million tears in the last 67 days.


We all have.


And I know 

...way over there,


There is another woman who looks just like me,


Because we are all so very similar


She has also been crying....


All those tears.

Our sea of tears

They all taste the same.


Can we take them, gather them up, and remove the salt,

And then pour them over our desert of despair...


And plant one tiny seed


a seed wrapped in fear, trauma, pain, war... and hope?


And see what grows.


Could it be that this woman, 

so very like me, 

that she and I could be sitting together in 50 years


Laughing without teeth, because we have drunk so much sweet tea together,

and now we are so very old... and our faces are creased like worn out brown paper bags


And our sons have their own grandchildren

and our sons have long lives (one without an arm, but who needs two arms anyway?)


Is it all a dream?

a fantasy?

a prophecy?  


One tiny seed. 

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