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05/31/2019 03:14:05 PM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Bechukkotai

Walking Erect, Walking in Dignity

This past Monday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. My family and I had gone down to the riverfront to participate in a small Memorial Day exercise that was taking place, and there was a soft breeze.  It was perfect in so many ways. Except I had a little pain in my back. It wasn’t bad, but it did mean that I was moving more stiffly than I prefer. By the evening I was doing everything I could to not bend over. By the next day, I was in a phenomenal amount of pain. It started in my back and extended through my hips and across my shoulders. Something had gotten knocked out of alignment, but I persisted on going about my day with as much advil as I dared take. By the evening I had managed to make something go pop and the pain started to subside. I have no idea what I did wrong to begin with, but I realized the next day I had been in so much physical pain that Tuesday was a complete blur; I had gone about the day in a fugue not really aware of what was going on.

I spent two unpleasant days bowed with back pain, pain that went away. But it made me think of how many people are bowed over with equally powerful pain: pain caused by age and the mistreatment they incur, the pain of indignity, the pain of carrying all the weight of the world all of their burdens, the pain of the justice involved individual and their families, struggling mightily under the weight, the pain of and stress of being viewed with hostility in a hostile world: the person of color, the gay person, the disabled, the religious minority. I think it’s an especially powerful idea right now, as we become increasingly aware of how so many in our community are walking with burdens so heavy that they stand stooped and low. Sometimes it seems like the despair of the world has everyone hunched over, aware of their burdens. There is an expression in Hebrew: “omeid b’she’ela”, to stand as a question mark. There are a lot of people going around standing—literally and figuratively—as question marks, bearing a burden that seems intolerable.

But that is not how we are meant to go about. We are meant to stand erect, to stand with dignity. In our portion tonight, in verse 13, God, after telling Israel how many wonderful things will befall them if they follow the mitzvot, says a phrase that is at first familiar but different. “I am Adonai your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to no longer be their slaves; who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” The commentator Sforno cites the Midrash in saying that, when Israel was enslaved, the Egyptians would make them lie on the ground so they could walk across them. And here, God removes the fetters that kept Israel bent over for centuries. As Baruch Levine says in his commentary, The aptness of the biblical metaphor is apparent. A person who is subjugated, upon whom a yoke is placed, is bent over. Once the bars are broken, he can stand at full stature.”

It's telling that this verse comes right after God encourages following the mitzvot as a way of maintaining deep relationship. As my teacher Shai Held writes,

The verse implicitly contrasts what it means to be a slave to Pharaoh with what it means to be a servant of God. Pharaoh places the Israelites under a backbreaking and soul-crushing yoke, whereas God invites them to stand tall.4 Subtly the Torah indicates that to serve God and to stand upright are not mutually contradictory. On the contrary, one cannot really serve God without a robust sense of one’s own dignity. True divine service depends on those who serve standing tall.

To fulfill the mitzvot outlined throughout the Torah is not an act of subjugation; on the contrary, it is an act of dignity. To be in divine service—to relieve people of their burdens and break the shackles of what binds them, to lift up those who have been knocked down, and to rebuild that which has been destroyed—requires that we see ourselves as engaged in the process, as partners. God doesn’t want servants and slaves, God wants us to have agency, to be engaged, to serve with dignity.

To be sure, we live in a time when the dignity of so many is under attack. Perhaps that even describes people in this room. And when our dignity is under attack, our burden feels weary, and our back becomes bowed. We must remember what we are called to do, both by our sacred Scripture and our historic experience. It is our obligation to cry out—on our behalf and on behalf of others—to find courage, to find our voices, to stand up, even when the weight of the world is on our shoulders.

In college, I learned that one of the most powerful moments on the stage in the 20th century happened at the end of William Butler Yeats’ play “Cathleen Ni Hoolihan”, or “The Countess Cathleen”, when it was first performed in 1902. In that play, Cathleen, “The old Woman of Ireland”, is played by Maude Gonne, encouraging the young to fight for her independence.  She spent most of the play hunched over, but at the end, contrary to the direction Yeats had given her, she pulled herself up to her full height of six feet, a towering frame on the stage, and strode off like a queen, saying the lines “They shall be remembered forever, the People shall hear them forever.” It’s a powerful image, as powerful, perhaps, as the image the Torah gives us. May we stride forth, therefore, not bowed in pain or weary from our burdens, but in the strength of our mission, given to us by God and history; to assert our own dignity, and the dignity of those who suffer. Thus may it be said that we remember forever and hear that covenantal call in all we do, forever. Amen.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784