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Inspiration from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l

Dear Friends,

I am preparing to lead the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s trip to Israel, “Meetings with Remarkable People.” I fly out this Saturday night, and our group convenes in Jerusalem this coming Sunday evening. We have a full contingent of about 35 people, and I’m sure this will be a deeply meaningful and bonding journey for all of us. Following the tour I will be staying an extra week in Israel to visit with my daughter Timna, who is currently living in Tel Aviv, and to catch up with the rest of my family who live in Israel. I will be back in Woodstock on February 20.

I look forward to writing weekly dispatches to you all about our experiences on the tour. I will be checking my email regularly, so if you need to reach me you will be able to connect with me via email.

All of our services, classes and events will be continuing while I am away, in the able hands of congregation members, our staff and our terrific student rabbi Kami Knapp. At this deeply troubling and unsettled time in the United States I encourage us all to stay connected and close to our synagogue community, so that we can give each other support, perspective, and strength.

I would like to briefly share some words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory, whose writings we studied in our Torah study class this week, and will continue to engage with this Shabbat. We have reached the episode in the story of the Exodus when Moses confronts Pharaoh with the message of YHVH: “Let My people go!” Pharaoh replies, “I do not know this YHVH, and I will not let the people go.”

On January 14, 1963, as the keynote speaker at the first “National Conference on Religion and Race”, held in Chicago, Rabbi Heschel used this reference to open his extraordinary address:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.

Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry. Let us make no compromise with callousness.

Rabbi Heschel than builds an irrefutable case that Judaism, and every true religion, must oppose the Pharaonic view that some humans are more equal than others. Anything less is idolatry:

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

That is, we worship the principle of empathy, the capacity to know another person’s pain, the ability to reach out beyond our own ego and recognize our fundamental parity with every human. As YHVH says to Moses at the burning bush, “I have marked well the plight of My people; I have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I know their pain.” (Ex 3:7)

With prophetic power, Heschel insists that we worship the God of empathy. His words ring as true today as they did in 1963, for they are the truth. We must be resolute, and confront the Pharaohs of our day who treat other humans and the world as a whole only as playthings for personal gratification. Heschel cites the words of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, writing against slavery:

I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard.

Rabbi Heschel’s essay is from his collection The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (1966). As I strive to keep my moral compass steady in these dangerous times, I find my self turning for guidance to Heschel, a Jewish scholar, an activist, a poet, a refugee from the Nazis who became Martin Luther King’s close colleague, and became the leading moral voice of Jewish teachings during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, until his passing in 1972.

When I return from Israel, I will offer a class on Heschel’s writing, so that we can internalize Heschel’s teachings, and bring them into our own lives and actions. His is a Jewish voice that can guide us on the path of righteousness in today’s world.

Until then,

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan