The parshah this week is Parshat Shemot – the first parshah in Sefer Shemot – the book of Exodus. Sefer Shemot narrates the journey of Bnai Israel from slavery to freedom. It feels rather appropriate to begin this second part of our year with a book about plagues, signs, and journeys. These days, we feel in the grip of a plague that seems to never end. Just when the frogs disappear, locusts appear, or cattle disease. You get the metaphor. We feel ensnared in a situation that we didn’t create. Encumbered by restrictions to our mobility, our social life, our work life. And we are all forever on the lookout for signs – a spark, a gesture, some parting of the proverbial seas indicating a path towards redemption and freedom from our situation.
Winter presents new challenges – for the students’ learning and mental health, as well as for our own energy, mental and physical health. Regardless of whether we are learning on-line or off-line, we will be asked once again to employ the flexibility, creativity, teamwork, and adaptability for which the Heschel faculty and parent community is renowned. And by Pesach, God willing, Spring and Chag Ha’aviv will bring us some light at the end of the tunnel.
Bnai Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom was not a straight road. There were many moments of hesitation, back-tracking, temporary loss of spirit. And, of course, at the crucial moment — a leap of אמונה (emunah) and a leap of action as they stepped forth into Yam Suf, into the unknown. To be a free person – a בן \ בת חורין really means nothing more than taking that leap of action, even, and maybe especially, when we are afraid to take it – when, the walls of water are piled up ominously around us and the chariots of the Egyptian army are clanging at our backs.
At this time, when we might feel overwhelmed by the complexities and the challenges ahead of us, we may recall a teaching from Pirkei Avot:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר: לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר,
[Rabbi Tarfon] said: It is not your job to complete the task
וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
–but, neither are you free – בן חורין — to avoid it.
I find the use of the word בן חורין – a “free person” very interesting in this context. To be a “free person” is not to be free of the task, or of the obligation; nor is it the freedom to accomplish everything that one hopes to do. Our freedom includes both our obligation to engage with the task at hand and our recognition of the limitations of our powers. So friends, let’s take up the challenge of our freedom: meeting the task before us with courage, compassion, and care for others and for ourselves. Making the best choices we can. Doing the best we can.