Juneteenth: When We Got the Message

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation which is immutable and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this on Thursday when President Joe Biden signed into law legislation establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a US federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and becomes at least the eleventh federal holiday recognized by the US federal government. The US Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday today on Friday since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Only a handful of states currently observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday. (CNN)

17 Ideas for Teaching Juneteenth in the Classroom - WeAreTeachers

While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 156 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. We can be happy that Juneteenth is a federal holiday and know that there still so much work to be done. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? what do we need to do to reform our police force that targets people of color? We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This new occasion of Juneteenth reminds us that the revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

-last year’s post on Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

Some great sources on the day I got from my colleague Rabbi Stacy Rigler:

RESOURCE LIST:

Read

Listen

Watch

1 Response to “Juneteenth: When We Got the Message”


  1. 1 Yaakov Simon June 20, 2021 at 12:50 am

    Beautiful thoughts – thanks for sharing!


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