There have been some unnerving comments around the country this week. We have all, I am sure, heard about the comparison of Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler for which the administration official in question who made the comment profusely apologized.
The other time that the Nazi leader was named was in a comment by a North Carolina State representative on his campaign Facebook page. During a discussion about national law superseding state law, this state legislator wrote, “And if Hitler had won, should the world just get over it? Lincoln was the same sort of tyrant, and personally responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Americans in a war that was unnecessary and unconstitutional.”
I will leave further discussion about the specifics of those charges to historical experts inside and outside this space.
We know that there were economic aspects to the Civil War, and issues of federal power over the states. There were, however, central values in the war very much related to freedom. Was there freedom to enslave a human being and call him or her “property?” Was there a reason to engage in a war against those states with the goal that slaves would ultimately be considered “free” themselves?
The freedom to wield power over another human being is a basic question for most any arena of life. Many of us realize that it is best to see “power” in terms of “authority” and “responsibility.”
Being a leader sometimes includes the ability to change rules and make judgments, at times on a personal whim, in a way that greatly affects the freedom of those who live by those rules.
Or…a leader can choose to consult with trusted advisors and with people being served to discover what policies to continue and where change might be wise and welcome.
In the story of the Exodus, the Egyptian Pharaoh saw himself as unfettered in his decision-making role. He was Pharaoh. He could do anything. And when it came to the Israelite people, so he did, because he could.
And the people, whose ancestor Joseph had sustained Egypt in a famine, didn’t matter to anyone anymore, least of all, to a new Pharaoh.
Pharaoh used his nearly limitless power to enslave the Israelites and to break their spirit so that they would not seek to rise up against him in order to gain their own freedom.
But the freedom to do anything has its consequences. In this case, Pharaoh came upon a force he didn’t consider - the power of a God he did not know who had a persistent spokesman in Moses.
I imagine that some people might say that it wasn’t a “fair fight.” When it comes to liberating a people from oppression, though, we tend to see “fair” in a different light.
So God’s limitless power defeated Pharaoh’s boundless tyranny. God was free to do what God wanted to bring the Israelites to freedom, but it only happened with Pharoah’s eventual capitulation.
And then, after they arrived at Mount Sinai, while waiting for Moses to return to them, the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf.
At that moment, God had a different idea about using divine power.
In a section prior to the Torah reading for tonight is this passage in Exodus Chapter 32: The Eternal further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” But Moses implored the Eternal God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Eternal, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that God delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” And the Eternal One renounced the punishment intended for the people.”
And so we come to the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, which follows Moses up the mountain, once again, to receive a second set of the tablets of the 10 commandments.
I have always wondered why this portion is read on the Shabbat during Pesach, other than its brief mention of the ancient observance of Passover.
I finally think I understand the reason.
I believe it’s about restraint.
We might think that the most important thing Moses did was to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. I would suggest that his confrontation with God to step back from divine anger was just as important.
Without Moses’ pleading, there would have been no Israelite people, at least according to the Torah.
Whether we accept this passage as literally true or not, there is an important lesson to learn about holding back even when we have great power in a position we may hold.
Moses was reminding God that even God can’t do everything God wants to do, and that it’s important to take time to think and ponder and consider before taking serious action.
His approach to God yielded the section that I will read from the Torah tonight, which recounts God’s divine attributes which are all about limits and restraint.
Listen to the text: “The Eternal! the Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, only to the third and fourth generations.”
Every one of those qualities is about showing abundant love and kindness when they are warranted and deserved. AND…this passage teaches us how to enable the traits of compassion, grace, calm, commitment, and forgiveness to overcome any desire to unleash power to destroy and deconstruct, casting darkness where there once was light.
I believe that most people have learned that being free and staying free is about restraint. Maybe we can’t do all we want to do, or have all we want to have, because there are factors that limit us at any given moment.
Showing restraint can empower us to broaden our own freedom through cultivating relationships that will raise our spirits, sustain our hope, and strengthen our personal integrity related to how we make decisions that affect us and other people.
A sense of freedom can emerge from limits that are intended to acknowledge everyone’s humanity and an encouragement for us to be productive partners in the communities we form.
God, as the Oneness that unites us all, reminds us every moment that we should use our freedom in a way that will infuse kindness, forgiveness and faithfulness into our world.
On this Pesach, and at all times, so may we do.