We read this week the next installment in the saga of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. We read of a people and their leaders who have been demoralized because of their state of affairs. The God of Genesis – a God of pastoral creation, of families, of sisters, of animal pairs, of happy tearful reconciliation, has given way to the God of Exodus – a God of watchful waiting, of witnessing in conflagration, of wrathful lashing out, of dramatic national gestures. The Israelite people of Genesis – young, inexperienced, naïve, followers, repeaters of fate, with a sepia hued culture of tents filled with wives and children and siblings have given way to the Israelite people of Exodus – dehumanized slaves, crier outers, beaten down and exhausted, a generation past relatives who had lived peacefully in a foreign land, quietly if never quite welcomed, the people of early Exodus in their stark black and white existence of want and fear.
And this morning – four promises of liberation: ve hotzaiti, ve hitzalti, ve lakachti, ve heveiti. I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you and I will take you to be My people. (Exodus 6:6-8) Each a different stage in their liberation, a way they were set free and then continued the process of moving from being an enslaved people to an autonomous God-focused nation with a destiny and a narrative all their own. These promises of liberation were so significant that Judaism enshrined them as the central ritual of the central ritual of the Jewish people. These long ago glimpses of imminent freedom became the four cups of wine at the heart of Passover Seder. One cup for each of the four promises manifestations of liberation from Egyptian slavery. A ritual that has been kept for more than 2000 years in every land of our dispersion, in every generation no matter the circumstances.
In April 1944 ten men ate matzo in Auschwitz. Through the help of an inmate who worked in the kitchen when the month of Nisan began, they started to hide away bits of flour and keep it separate. From this discarded flour they baked ten matzot and each man was given a half matzo to eat for the week. Among those men was one named Pesach who had been named such after being born the second night of the festival and always kept it close to his heart. That was to be the last Pesach observed in Auschwitz.
75 years ago next Shabbat, the date was January 27 on the Gregorian calendar, the 13th of Shevat 5705 of our Jewish calendar, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, many Jews were home with their families. If they had been in the synagogue that morning 75 years ago they would have heard the Song at the Sea. It was Shabbat Shira, one of the most joyous Shabbatot on the Jewish calendar that celebrates the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and their successful crossing of the Red Sea to begin their journey to the land of Israel. They heard the ba’al koreh, the Torah reader, sing out, “ashira ladonai ke gaoh ga’ah, sus ve rachvo, rama bayam.” I will sing to Adonai, who has triumphed gloriously, who cast horse and rider into the sea.” And then they returned home to hear just a few hours later of another redemption far from the Sea. On January 27, 1945 the Soviet army entered Auschwitz Birkenau and liberated the approximately 7000 remaining prisoners who were ill and been left there to die.
The black and white images of want and fear are engraved on our memories. If we are asked, as we will be at the Passover Seder – what does this mean to you? How will we answer? What does the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz mean to us in Baltimore in the year 2020?
75 years is three generations. It is becoming the “distant past” in terms of time passed, even in terms of physical distance. We must continue to hold it close without letting it create a narrative of victimization that dominates the Jewish story. For the past 4 or five years on the Sunday in September when we hold kever avot, cemetery services during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have added a special service here at the synagogue in the courtyard. It is held outside by the Holocaust Memorial Garden that my office overlooks. Summer’s blistering heat or fall’s driving rains have usually decimated the flowers that grow there, but the more important and beautiful natural centerpiece still stands tall. A tree emerging from the craggy soil and circle of boulders below it. Life springing forth amidst the solid and unyielding. I don’t think there have every been more than 20 people at this memorial service held here at the synagogue for those who don’t have graves of their loved ones to visit. It doesn’t feel so distant on that afternoon 70 and 75 years later.
And while there are often tears, there is also triumph and joy. Exultation even in marking a liberation, a process that continues even until today. 75 years since the liberation from Auschwitz; and 3000 some years since the liberation from Egypt, and we have done something amazing. We have transformed our narrative. A sepia toned story of slavery and degradation, of stolen flour and hidden infants has been transformed into Technicolor redemption. A liberation so complete that it needs numerous words and numerous generations to begin to capture its numerous aspects. We are a nation who have been freed and redeemed and delivered and lovingly taken to be a people.
“Va tikach miryam ha neviah achot ahran et ha tof be yada. Then Miriam the Prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, shiru ladonai ki gaoh ga’ah sus ve rachvo ram aba yam. Sing to Adonai who has gloriously triumphed.”
When Moses celebrated the people’s liberation he did it alone ashira la’adonai, I will sing to God. Let us instead celebrate liberation as Miriam did, shiru l’adonai. Let us gather our whole community to sing out together as one as we mark this stage in our redemption.