Shabbat Shira. This Shabbat, Jews around the world are recalling and celebrating freedom and redemption. Tomorrow morning during our Torah reading, we will rise up and stand for the recitation of the Shira, as if we too were being led in song by Moses and Miriam on freedom’s side of the Reed Sea. This year, the remarkable confluence of Martin Luther King weekend and Shabbat Shira has inspired the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement to mark this Shabbat as Shabbat Tzedek, the Sabbath of Righteousness and Justice, in honor of their 50 years of activism on behalf of American Jewry. At the same time, despite the desire for rejoicing these events evoke in us, a heaviness hovers over this Shabbat Shira v’Tzedek .
Last Shabbat, as I expect we all are aware by now, six people were senselessly gunned down and others seriously wounded including Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was the apparent target of this rampage. During a week leading up to the celebration of the constant effort that our movement puts forth towards the pursuit of social justice in this nation, during a week when we are preparing to celebrate an historical moment of redemption from oppression that takes on mythic proportion in Jewish tradition, it is unthinkable that we also buried, among others, a nine year old who was already at her young age so passionate about and interested in our nation’s democratic ideals and the political process. It’s absurd to me that on a weekend when we are to celebrate the righteousness and rightness of justice over tyranny and oppression, we are instead mourning the loss of innocent life and praying for the recovery of a woman who has chosen to serve her community in an effort to make this nation more just. Especially as I sat with our teenage confirmation students in the Capitol Hill office of Senator Benjamin Cardin at 11 AM this past Monday, the very moment when our nation’s Capitol paused for that moment of thoughtful silence, I was struck with an inability to respond. Our students who had, davka, an 11 AM appointment with Senator Cardin’s staff were impacted directly as they waited through this moment of reflection in order to participate in the very legislative and democratic process that was attacked just days before.
Perhaps the scene on the shores of the Reed Sea and the communal experience of redemption can offer us some insight regarding how to formulate a meaningful and sensible response. Our Torah does not inform us of the individual experiences of redemption. Those individual experiences must have been interesting (by nature we humans are interesting individuals), but these stories weren’t worthy of retention in our sacred canon. When it comes to establishing a sense of community and a civil society, the focus must be on communal responsibility. We have to take care of each other. The Jewish concept of redemption is less about the individual; rather, it is far more about working together towards making the world a more perfect place. The communal – the shared - experience of crossing of the Reed Sea and leaving Egypt coupled with the revelation to come at Sinai will not only define this community but will give it cohesion, structure, and most importantly, a moral imperative.
In the wake of this past week’s events, Sarah Palin, in a response that was, IMHO, thoroughly and inappropriately self-serving, quoted Ronald Reagan stating, “we must reject the idea that whenever a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.” Speaking out against the concept of collective responsibility, Ms. Palin added, “we must restore the precept that each individual is accountable for his or her own actions. Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them…” On the one hand, Ms. Palin is correct. There is no question that individuals must be held responsible for their actions. However, at the same time, we cannot, we must not, stand idly by and ignore our collective culpability in a crime of this magnitude. We, as an American community, must shoulder some responsibility for creating and supporting an environment where such behavior was deemed acceptable, even if only by this one individual, and for making the tools available for him to act on his horrific impulse.
Civility requires us to bear some of the responsibility of this individual’s actions. Sarah Palin isn’t necessarily to blame (though, personally I don’t think her rhetoric of “reloading” is useful in any context outside of hunting or target practice), but our society’s current valuing of the individual over community is. The New York Times reported today that many, including friends, teachers, and administrators at the community college Mr. Loughner attended, had considerable concern regarding his attitudes and behavior. Yet save for a suspension from class, no action was taken. A college spokesperson, in explaining why further action such as mandating a psychiatric evaluation, admitted that Loughner’s behavior on campus though “disturbing, [was] not a crime.” How do we respond to such ‘disturbing’ behavior without trampling on the individual rights of the individual so that intervention occurs before ‘disturbing’ becomes not only criminal but lethal? A challenging question indeed to which no simple answer arises, yet a question with which we must struggle for the sake of the civility and righteousness of our society.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in an address to the 47th Biennial gathering of the then UAHC in 1963, stated as only he could,
“All I am saying is this, that all life is interrelated. That we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, it affects all indirectly [and] I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
It is no accident that The Shira was intended to be sung by the entire community. It is not a celebration of individual achievement or honor. It provides a means of expression for the group. God has acted on behalf of an entire people and this song now allows that entire people to offer gratitude and accept responsibility accordingly. Commentary has certainly developed, and continues to develop, that works to fill in the gaps allowing us to peer into the individual experience. The midrashic poem, Leaving Egypt, by Merle Feld, offers a lovely example:
The night is so dark
And I am afraid.
I see nothing, smell nothing,
The only reality –
I am holding my mother’s hand.
And as we walk
I hear the sounds
Of a multitude in motion –
In front, behind,
A multitude in motion.
I have no thought of tomorrow,
Now , in the darkness,
There is only motion
And my mother’s hand. (published by the URJ in The Women’s Commentary)
It is also no accident that this multitude is depicted as singing The Shira. It seems to be a strange time to sing. Yes, the group has arrived safely through their arduous journey after years and years of bondage; but, you’d think they’d be too tired and emotional distraught from their flight (let alone the trauma of watching the waters crash down upon their enemy, their former neighbors) to sing. Yet, the biblical redactor forces us to stretch our imagination by incorporating this ‘song’, a literary piece decidedly older than the narrative in which it is embedded into the narrative. The song works to imprint the entire episode onto our communal memory. The Shira, is an extraordinary work of poetry that is used to make sure that we never forget this episode in OUR history. The song reminds us and compels us to act justly in the world and to indeed continue our work towards making this a safe, civil, and democratic nation -- one of which Martin Luther King, Jr. would be proud.