I was asked to participate in a Multi-Faith Peace Rally at the Community Growth Center in Setuaket ,NY, along with other faith leaders, that include Father Pizzareli, Kadam Holly McGregor and Mufti Farhan, among others. Our task was to pick a special prayer from our tradition and to explain why it is precious to each of us. This is what I chose to say for this MLK Day Peace Rally.
The Sabbath morning prayer, Yismach Moshe b’matnat helko, goes this way: Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion.
And what did you give him?
A diadem of glory you placed upon his head.
Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion.
And what did you call him?
You called him a faithful servant.
Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion.
And what did he carry in his hands?
In his hands he brought down the two tables of stone.
Moses was so gladdened by a gift of portion because God called him an eved ne’eman, a faithful servant, and placed a crown on his head as he stood on Mt. Sinai. Written on the two tablets in his hands was the keeping of the Sabbath Day.
Why do I love this prayer? I love the fact that Moses is spoken of as God’s faithful servant. What was it that made him that faithful servant and what, as well, can we learn from Moses about being a faithful servant?
Our sages teach: Moses was a Noseh Be Ol, a person who had empathy; a person who bore the burden of others. When Moses became a young man, looked upon the Israelites and saw their torment. His reaction? Midrash tells us that he put his shoulder to the wheel to lend a hand. When a slave was being beaten to within an inch of his life by a ruthless slave master, Moses looks to and fro, vayare ko v’b ko vayare kilo ish, right and left, to see if there were any men around. He looked not because he was afraid witnesses, but because it says elsewhere in the Torah “in a place where there are no men present, be a man.”Stand up for the true and the good! Moses, keenly aware of the burden placed on others, saved the slave from a brutal death.
Moses had a keen sense toward leveling the playing field. He knew it when he saw unfair advantage and he tried to rectify it. He saw the brutal inequality between slave and slave master and couldn’t bear it. He saw, a little later, the inequality between the Hebrew aggressor and the victimized Hebrew and he asked the aggressor, “lama takeh reacha, why are you using force on your neighbor?” Later on, in Midian, he saw the harassment of Jethro’s daughters by the Midianite shepherds and this too he couldn’t bear. Moses always lent his weight to those who were powerless before the powerful. He did so with Hebrews and non-Hebrews, between Hebrews, and between altogether non- Hebrews. Moses could not stand to see the abuse of power. In this way, he mirrors God’s abhorrence of unfair advantage and of favored status. Earlier in the Bible, God looks at Leah and Rachel, and sees that Leah is less loved, so he makes her especially fertile. God too cannot stand inequality, He cannot help Himself from trying to narrow it; to lessen it. God, in the Psalms, says “I will help those who fear me and to their supplication shall I listen.” But he saves his greatest attention for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Whether they fear Him or not is not the point, it’s whether he sees suffering in their hearts. So passionately concerned is God for their welfare that if we ignore their needs and don’t make special efforts to alleviate the plight of the orphan, the widow and the stranger, well, He will make our families into orphans and widows. God is a zealot for the oppressed–and so must we be to be God’s faithful servant.
Therefore, Moses’ response, when Joshua points out that there were many prophesying and Joshua thought it would threaten Moses’ leadership, was to say “No, it should only be that all Israel prophesys, for they all have this great potential.” And therefore Moses’ explanation of why keep the Sabbath. We keep the Sabbath not, as in Exodus, because we want to imitate God and rest on the seventh day. Rather, like in Deuteronomy, we can imitate God’s capacity to rescue and redeem others. Keep the Sabbath, Moses tells us, for yourselves, your servants, your maidservants ,your sons and your daughters, the stranger. Even, keep the Sabbath to rest your ox and your donkey, because God released you from bondage in Egypt and so you must keep this day. What is implied is that you must keep the Sabbath so that you are able to release others and enact an imitation Deio, a modeling of what God does by releasing, relieving, rescuing and enhancing the lives of others in your midst. This is what allows us to be God’s faithful servant. Just like Moses.
Moses, by the way was not perfect. He snapped from time to time. He felt the pressure and the onus of leading. At times he was harsh, impatient and his anger got the best of him. That is why, after all ,he doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land. But mostly, Moses got it right. So much so that sometimes even God learned from Moses’ patience, his love for his people, his understanding of their weakness, his hope and his trust for their improvement, and his rochmanus–his empathy for those who had gone astray.
I will leave it to you to apply this to our day. There are many in need today; many who are suffering in silence, the result of unfair advantage, of a playing field less than level. There are the crying needs of our poor, our oppressed, and for the widow, orphan and stranger among us. The issues before us are not simple, they are not black and white, and there is merit from various angles of every pressing moral issue before us. But we know from our heritage that we must be sensitized by the example set by the faithful servants among us–by the Moseses of the world, the prophets of the world–by the Martins of the world, by the Heschels of the world, by the Lincolns and the Robert Kennedys, who never lost hope that the arc of justice is ever steadily bending upward, who never stopped hearing the call of the oppressed, who never lost sight of the grimace of despair, who never tired of putting shoulder to the wheel and defending those who are at the mercy of the powerful. And in their wake May we continue to aspire to be faithful servants of God as well. And for all who agree let us say…Amen.