Pilgrimage to Freedom & Justice
In our first exchange, we explored the place of prayer and meditation in our lives. While there is, of course, much more to discuss on that topic, given that you just recently completed the celebration of Passover, I would like to explore the subject of sacred seasons. Can you share with me some reflections on your experience of Pesach this year?
As you might expect, the vicious attack at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City on the eve of the holiday colored my experience. As an American Jew, it was a painful reminder that anti-Semitism still exists in our country and that we must remain vigilant in countering this and other forms of bigotry. My heart goes out to all those who suffered from this terrible crime.
In light of this tragedy, much of my thinking this Passover was focused on the need to work daily on the grand project of liberation. I was reminded of a statement that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel made in his address at the 1963 National Conference on Race and Religion: “At the first conference on religion and race the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses and Pharaoh is [still] not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but is far from having been completed.” We live in a beautiful but broken world in which prejudice and oppression still plague us. As Heschel understood, Pharaoh wears many masks and bigotry takes different forms.
In this sense, Pesach is not only a celebration, but also a statement of (re)commitment. We give thanks for our freedom and pledge to continue to work for greater liberation. In reflecting on these ideas, I imagined what it might have been like to celebrate Passover as a pilgrimage festival, as in the ancient days of the Temple. Countless numbers of people traveled from across the country to Jerusalem for this great spring holiday. The vision of pilgrims, trudging slowly from the Galilee or elsewhere to the heart of the country, reappeared in my mind. I think this image is an important complement to the revolutionary story of the Exodus with its great “signs and wonders.” Peak moments are few and far between; much of life is about putting one foot in front of the other and faithfully continuing the journey.
This same sensibility is reflected in the practice of counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot (based on an agricultural ritual described in Leviticus 23:15), the next pilgrimage festival. During these seven weeks—known as the period of the “Counting of the Omer”—we continue to shed our identities as slaves and ready ourselves to (re)enter into a covenantal relationship with God at Mount Sinai. Each day, say the mystics, we are to refine different aspects of ourselves so that we are properly prepared to accept the Torah on Shavuot. In entering the covenant at Sinai, we take on more responsibility to work as partners with God in creating a just and compassionate world.
In reading your words, I immediately thought of the Qur’anic tale of Abraham, who leaves his native land (as in the book of Genesis) to find a place “blessed for the worlds,” where he could worship God freely and engage in prayer and works of charity. Indeed, the motif of journey for the sake of God is an integral and celebrated part of the Islamic tradition – Abraham did it, and was rewarded by the gift of a prophetic line. The Prophet Muhammad, his spiritual descendant, immigrated to Medina to establish a sacred community. And millions of Muslims journey for the sake of God each year for the annual pilgrimage of Hajj in Mecca, a practice intimately linked to Abraham’s narrative.
There are places that allow us greater freedom to become our best selves. But where there are human beings, there will be pain. As you said, the Exodus is ongoing. This is why Hajj is also cast as an inner journey towards self-knowledge. The Ka`ba (“The Cube,” inner sanctum) becomes the human heart, the seat of wisdom, and each ritual of Hajj signifies a step in the path of self-transformation. Al-Hajveri (Daata Ganj Bakhsh), the beloved teacher of 11th century Lahore, asks: “If visiting the temple made of stone is possible only once a year, why can you not visit the temple of your heart all year round, where the pilgrim is blessed with new gifts every moment and awarded a fresh robe of honor at every step?” In making this inward pilgrimage we are meant to emerge as more loving beings with an expanded capacity to engage others with care and kindness. Exploring the contours of the heart allows us to transform other spaces.
As I mentioned to you offline, I am actually planning (Insha’Allah, “God willing”) to go on Hajj this year for the first time. As I prepare to do so, I ask myself how this pilgrimage might impact me. I pray that it will serve to deepen my capacity to act in the world with greater clarity, compassion, and hope—knowing that the journey continues…