“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1)
The earth is holy and sacred. The world, our home in the cosmos, is filled with wonder and miracle. The ground beneath our feet, on which we build our homes and our lives, sustains us with the bounty found in the richness of nature.
The natural world touches our souls and our spirits. For some it is the salty sea air by the ocean shore. For others it is the majestic vistas in the mountains. Still others soak in the symphony heard deep in the forest. For others it is in the amber waves of grain shimmering across plains of farmland.
But the earth was only the starting point of creation. God was much more interested in what God created later – oceans and rivers; trees, plants, and vegetation; fish in the seas, birds of the skies, and creatures that roam on earth. And then humankind, God’s masterpiece, created in God’s holy image to be God’s partners in perfecting and completing the work of creation.
Today begins Shabbat HaGadol, the Grand Shabbat prior to the celebration of Passover. The Festival of Liberation invites us to remember that each and every human life is of ultimate and infinite value – a holy good in and of itself – not a utility to realize other fleeting human aims like wealth or power.
The story of the Exodus can never be retold too many times. It reminds us that a human being, no matter how powerful, is never a God to be worshipped. It reminds us that the sanctity of a land is found only in the values that form the foundation of the society one builds upon it.
Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is evil. It is evil precisely because it desecrates everything we know to be sacred. Putin worships Russian soil – he sees himself a god. Freedom is his enemy.
Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen explained that Putin does not see himself as a servant of the Russian people, but instead he sees the Russian people as servants of the state. Their value to him is their utility – how they can be used to impose by force the greater Russia he so desperately desires.
This week, the expanding evil of this war put Putin’s inhumanity on full display. In Bucha, we witness carnage and murder with hundreds of civilians massacred by Russian troops and Russian backed mercenaries. In the city of Kramatorsk, a Russian missile strike deliberately targeted a train station used by civilians trying to flee the Donbas area, killing at least 50 people and injured nearly 100.
Imagine the last minutes of life of the man murdered on his bicycle while trying to bring a bag of potatoes home to his family. Think of the horror of wounded children witnessing the deaths of their parents and siblings while waiting for a train to take them to safety.
Each and every one of those killed was a precious, holy individual – each death a searing tragedy.
What makes any nation great is not its geographical boundaries or its topographical maps, but the manner by which it champions the values of freedom, justice, compassion, and human decency.
A nation’s greatness is found in what it builds, not in what it destroys.
A nation’s greatness is found in what it inspires, not in what it compels.
A nation’s greatness is found in how it liberates its people to rise, not in the power it imposes to restrict and oppress.
As Shabbat arrives this week, in this celebratory season of memory and liberation, I cannot help but be moved on this historic day as the first black woman ascends to the Supreme Court of the United States. Quoting Maya Angelou, Justice Jackson said:
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In the face of evil, injustice, and humanity – we too must rise. As we prepare to celebrate the Festival of Freedom, we must rise and declare with firm voice that we will never bend our knees in subservience to a human master, but that we will champion the freedom to serve the Divine.
To worship a land or its leader is to commit idolatry.
To sanctify a land, we lift up freedom and humanity.