Cantor Eyal Bitton shares a few thoughts on prayer and the parasha of the week.

Let Our People Define Ourselves

2024-01-13 Parashat Va’era

I can’t tell you how many hateful comments I receive on my YouTube videos and social media posts. Most of them are written by non-Jews who want to impose their definition of Jewish identity. Countless individuals who want to deny our attachment to the land of Israel state that we are a religion and not a people. If we are a people, they say, then we’re just a European people, from Khazar. The claim is nonsense. It’s racist. And it doesn’t speak to our reality.

There are willful actors who don’t care what the reality is and there are people who truly believe that we are merely a religion, not a people.

What matters to me is not what they think but what we think. We are a people WITH a religion. We are Yehudim who originate in Yehuda. Yehudim are Judeans, shortened to “Jews” in English. It’s our heritage and our ancestry. And the religion of our people is Yahadut, Judaism.

This week’s parasha has the greatest call for freedom known to the Western world: “Let my people go!” Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh numerous times asking, requesting, and demanding liberation for their people, the children of Israel. Note, however, that they are not asking for freedom from slavery per se but for freedom of religion. They beseech Pharaoh to let them go to worship their God! They are demanding freedom of religion. The representatives of this people, of our people, are seeking freedom to pray as the people of Israel. They are seeking the freedom to express their national identity. They are a people with one God. They want to express their particular identity.

And that is what frightens Pharaoh. Enslaving a people means denying their ability to define themselves fully or express themselves fully as their own people.

Today, we cannot let ourselves be dictated to by others about who we are. It’s easy to accept their definition. We are being intimidated to accept it. We are being threatened to accept it. We are being enticed to accept it; much of society will accept us, we’re told, if we define ourselves as a religion and not as a people tied to our ancestral homeland. But this is a form of enslavement. We cannot let ourselves be enslaved to this thinking.

We recall this ancient cry that is not actually universal but is very particular. We are a unique people. We are a people who have a particular history. We are a people who have a particular homeland. We are a people who have a particular sacred text. We are a people who have particular religious practices and customs centered around our sacred texts and centered around our sacred homeland. That ancient cry for OUR PEOPLE’s freedom to be who we are echoes within our collective hearts like an ancient and eternal shofar blast.