Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat HaGadol 5781 Nechemta
Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat, the Shabbat before Passover. This is the Shabbat when historically our people would settle in to services because it was the longest sermon of the year, all about how to halakhically prepare your home for Passover. That is not what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re talking about Light and we’re talking about Shame.
Gadol means big. This a time to become expansive, to move from narrowness to wide open space. From degradation to exaltation. This is the time to grow as big as the freedom that is beckoning us.
Oscar, you talk to us about a fire on the altar, not to go out, to burn forever. The soul as the light of Divinity within. That the fire in us as a people, eternally burning, and will not be snuffed out, across the generations.
Scarlett, you talked to us about how sin and guilt used to be ritual matters, the offerings designed to wipe the slate clean, to expiate transgression and the fear of transgression. Knowing that people are prone to guilt, the sacrificial system was a way to release guilt, to prevent the burden of shame. A way to come toward the fire, that light without and within.
Today you taught us that people have divergent views about what constitutes sin—some will say its sinful to be queer or trans or gendernonconforming. Some say that it is sinful to be homophobic and transphobic. Some say that it’s sinful to have abortion, some that it is sinful to harass, block, and threaten violence against women seeking to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives.
What can happen in these culture wars, and in the experience of oppression, is that the targeted group can absorb the idea that they are wrong, can internalize a shame that is not their own. This can happen with gender or sexual orientation or disability or race or class or language or accent or immigration status and so much more.
We also know that the more powerful group often twists the concept of sin, using the idea of sinfulness as a weapon against the oppressed. When we look now at the Jim Crow South, for example, we can see clearly that it was the white racist segregationists who should have felt ashamed of themselves, but they declared that integration was a sin and that those seeking it were sinners. Many Black people living under those conditions felt that they were somehow unworthy or lesser, felt some shame because of the messages heaped upon them of their inferiority and of the supposed sinfulness of seeking equality. Shame, internalized messages of wrong or unworthiness, threaten to dim our light. That’s why “This Little Light of Mine” was such an important, powerful, even salvific anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
We know that the Israelites internalized a sense of shame and inferiority as slaves in Egypt, so much so that they could not even hear Moses when he came to tell them that freedom was coming. Perhaps that’s why it was so important for the authors of Leviticus to establish a system for people to release feelings of guilt and sinfulness. When we’re in an oppressive situation it seems that it will last forever. It is so difficult as human beings to imagine the future, to believe in transformation, to see a larger time horizon, especially when we are oppressed. We come to believe the dominant narrative, to believe that the hierarchies of the society are divinely ordained or at least inevitable, and to believe ourselves to be less worthy, less deserving, less good. This is shame. And shame is one of the only things that can dim our light.
This dynamic is not distant from us. Today, as our president said this week, we face a 21st century Jim Crow, as 33 states consider 165 bills to restrict voting rights. These laws are based on the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen and that those who want to vote or create equal access to voting are cheating—that those who want to vote are the sinners, not the people who are trying to take the vote away. This is a classic twisting, perversion of concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, sin and guilt. On Thursday, Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp hastily signed that state’s outrageous voter suppression law, a law directly preventing black people from voting and Democrats from winning, limiting voting by mail and voting drop boxes, allowing the Republican-dominated legislature to appoint the elections board, and giving that body the power to control county elections and remove county elections officials. It also makes it a crime to give water or food to people waiting on line to vote. Governor Kemp signed the law while sitting under a painting of the Callaway plantation, a slave plantation where more than 100 black people were enslaved, while a black woman state representative was arrested for knocking on the door of the room where the governor was signing the bill.
This was also a week when NRA-backed gun policies led to the 102nd mass shooting of the year in Boulder that killed 10 people, following the Atlanta shooting targeting Asian women, senseless murders which would have been prevented by common sense gun control legislation. These things are not separate. They’re all manifestations of a murderous, illegitimate regime.
It’s not an accident that the last three plagues that struck Egypt were all about darkness. While running an empire of darkness—of tyranny, oppression, and murder—the Egyptians believed themselves to be the possessors of light. Pharaoh was understood to be a living incarnation of Ra, the sun god. The daily solar rebirth (what we call the sunrise) represented salvation in Egyptian culture. The Egyptians called the experience of divine absence “darkness by day.” So when locusts blotted out the sun and darkened the earth, this was not just a pest problem. When the plague of darkness descended for three days and three nights, a darkness so thick that one could not see one’s neighbor in the middle of the day, it was a defeat of Ra, and then when the firstborn sons were killed in the deepest darkest night, the Egyptians experienced the ultimate vulnerability, the very same vulnerability they had inflicted upon their slaves. Gone was their sense of impervious superiority, at a terrible, terrible cost. Revealed was the true murderous and illegitimate nature of their regime.
The possibility of the plagues was that they would transform Egypt into a true empire of light—that the Egyptians, shaken to reckon with their moral failure, would turn toward teshuva, repentance, and then redemption, and would change.
This is the possibility of the moment we’re in. White supremacy has been revealed as murderous and illegitimate, and it is being challenged. Anti-Black racism is being challenged. Anti-Asian bias is being challenged. Misogyny is being challenged. Homophobia and transphobia are being challenged. Anti-Semitism is being challenged. Ableism is being challenged. We see counter-narratives emerging by the oppressed, and we see the oppressed, whether by gender or race or sexual orientation or disability, throwing off their shame. Healing from shame. We are in the midst of a great struggle for freedom, a struggle that will depend, in part, upon our light. Upon the fire that is always burning within and among us.
Oscar, you taught us that the fire, the light on the altar, is there to teach us never to give up.
Scarlett, you taught us that we must never allow those degrading messages to enter us. To win the struggle for freedom, to cross that formidable sea, we need to tap that fire, to become expansive and bright. We cannot be dimmed or made small by the lies that have shamed us, shame we may still carry from all of the harsh judgments and indignities thrust upon us, shame that is not even our own. In all of our intersecting privilege and oppression, we must reach out to hold one another’s hands, healing all of the old shames and stepping into the light, the light that is ours, the bright light that is never extinguished.
Every seder, we move from degradation to exaltation. Every Passover, just as darkness descends, we begin our seder by kindling light. These lights always represent the hope and promise of redemption. Tonight, because Passover begins at the end of Shabbat, we will begin our seder with havdalah, with a many wicked, extra bright candle. Tonight, let that big fire remind us of the everlasting fire on the altar, of the everlasting fire within us, the fire of never giving up, the light that will sustain us on the long walk to freedom.
May it be a beautiful and transformative seder. Next year in freedom. Happy Pesach.