Each time I get to lead t’filah with our 6th and 7th graders, I pause when we arrive at Mi Chamocha and ask: what does this prayer mark? What does it help us remember? And they respond: This prayer is about freedom! It is about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt! They sang it when they successfully made it across the Red Sea! And they are right. But for me there are a few additional reminders Mi Chamocha offers us.
First: Each time we arrive at this point in the service, whether we are having a wonderful day and feeling incredibly grateful or whether we are having a terrible day and feeling miserable, we are invited to rejoice. What a fascinating, complicated, and important task – to seek joy and celebration even on the worst of days.
Second: Mi Chamocha reminds us that the story our history tells is a story in which our ancestors were indeed delivered from the great nightmare of slavery – a powerful reminder that redemption is possible in the first place. If the Israelites were once redeemed, so too can we all be.
Third: The words of the prayer speak of geulah – redemption. We thank God for redeeming us, for delivering us from slavery and returning to us our agency, our ability to act in the world. The Hebrew word for redemption, however, is different from the Hebrew word for freedom. Because even as they stood on the far shore of the Red Sea, finally out of the Egyptian’s grasp, our ancestors were not yet free. They were no longer literally enslaved, sure – but redemption offers us only the first step toward freedom. In order to find full freedom, we must choose to continue forward on that path ourselves; we must exercise our agency.
In some ways, we are still each in our own way somewhere on that journey, moving from that which enslaves to that which frees us. And the weight of slavery and joy of redemption that we carry in our bones, guides the choices we make with the agency we have. We must not wrong the stranger, for we were strangers (Exodus 22:20). We must befriend the stranger, for we were strangers (Deuteronomy 10:19). We must offer others the opportunities that have been offered to us. We must join together in the struggle for a world in which all are able to recognize and celebrate all those who hold within them the Divine spark. And we must seek a future in which each person is equally able to use the free will offered to us all.
That’s our Jewish story of redemption, a story of the beginning of the liberation of our people. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that we don’t have the monopoly on redemption stories or liberation tales. Throughout the month of January, all are invited to join us at Temple Beth El on Friday evenings for dinner and shabbat services. Each week, we will welcome a speaker from a different faith to share their understanding of liberation. We begin with Rabbi Judy Schindler on January 10th, followed by Rev. Peter Wherry on January 17th, MLK Jr. weekend. Dr. Hadia Mubarak will join us on January 24th, and Father Hugo Medellin will conclude the series on January 31st. May their teaching enhance our own understanding, so that when we pray the words of Mi Chamocha, we might uncover yet another kernel of meaning.