Divrei Tikvah

Rabbi Johanna Hershenson’s Words of Hope

Remember the Omer? Not the Alamo, but the Omer. From the beginning of Passover until Shavuot the Hebrew calendar invites us to count the days. Passover marks our liberation from slavery and Shavuot, the giving of Torah (ethics and laws) at Mt. Sinai.

We all know what it feels like to count down the days to an anticipated event such as a birthday or the start of summer vacation. We do it because we look forward to the arrival of whatever the occasion about which we are excited.

As if liberation from slavery were not enough (Dayenu), we are called to immediately begin looking forward to receiving the gift of Torah. What is the meaning of freedom without the responsibility to sustain it?

Lately it is all too easy to throw our hands up in despair. Our rabbi didn’t sign on for a new contract. Antisemitism is rearing its ugly head in response to the war between Hamas and Israel. Another presidential election season is in full swing and it feels heavy and like a replay of our last presidential election.

We live in a uniquely crafted democratic republic in which our founding fathers knew that individual responsibility would be required to sustain. Freedom can only be sustained when we bear the responsibility to pay attention and respond accordingly through the filter of our shared values such as fairness and kindness. Knowing what is going on around us and voicing both celebration and rebuke are our responsibility as Jews and as Americans, if we are to be caretakers of our freedoms.

The call to taking on the responsibilities of our freedoms is not as easy as it sounds, especially in this age of hyperbole and tribalism. Rather than thinking and checking for accuracy of the information we consume, all too often we take the easy path of identifying with those whom we consider to be “our people.”

The problem is we allow the fringes to the so-called left and the so-called right to speak for us. The fringes are extremists by nature. They want it one way and too bad if the masses are not on board. They intimidate and pressure conformity and allegiance. Rather than getting serious about how to make the world a better place for everybody the fringes devolve into identity politics, attacks on character and name calling. You’re either with us or against us. You either love America or hate it. You’re either pro Zionist or pro Palestinian. Why can’t I be both pro Zionist and pro Palestinian? Why can’t I be pro human?

I never imagined that holding space in the middle, embracing centrist tendencies would be a radical move. Yet today, common sense and middling seem to be the radical position. Our values and our ideals, policy that reflects our values and ideals—these should be the substance of our conversations and our legislation. Allegiance to a single individual and/or only like-minded people are the idolatry of this moment in time.

As I count down the days of the Omer, the days between Passover and Shavuot—between liberation and the giving of Torah, I cannot help but reflect on the transition of allegiance to people giving way to allegiance to laws, ethics, values, and ideals.

Freedom is threatened when we pledge fealty to people or groups. Conformity is the antithesis of freedom. The responsibility we bear is to seek information, to think critically and ask questions, to endure the discomfort and labor of working together, out of love for our neighbor. The alternative is to give our freedom away. No matter what “they” do, I will not betray the values I hold dear.

B’virkat Shalom