וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַֽהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ אֵלָיו כֹּֽה־אָמַר יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי הָֽעִבְרִים עַד־מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵֽעָנֹת מִפָּנָי שַׁלַּח עַמִּי וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי
Va’yavo Moshe v’Aharon el Par’oh va’yomru eilav, “Ko amar YHVH, Elohei ha’Ivrim: Ad matai mei’anta lei’anot mipanai? Shalakh ami vaya’avduni!”
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Source of Life, the God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve the Source of Life!” (Exodus 10:3).
Our Torah tells an ageless and inspiring story. Every year when our cycle of readings brings us to the telling of the Exodus from slavery, I am stirred once again by the central message of our people’s journey: We affirm that there is a Power inherent in the fabric of the universe that insists that human beings be free from subjugation and tyranny — that all people bear the imprint of Divinity, and therefore must be treated with dignity and respect. We know that any of us, in our lust for power, can willfully ignore this moral law, harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh. In our selfishness, we can spurn the demands of justice and instead focus solely on personal gain.
This was as true in ancient Israel as it is today. After the Children of Israel conquered the land of Canaan and established their own kingdoms of Judah and Israel, they forgot the covenant they had long ago sworn to uphold at Mount Sinai. In that milieu, a series of prophets arose: spokespeople for the God of Sinai. The prophets railed against the injustices, oppression and complacency that overtook Israelite society, and reminded high and low alike that their God would not be satisfied with rote worship and meaningless proclamations. The prophets’ words became canonized, their elevated rhetoric forever amplifying the teaching of the Exodus: Our task as human beings is to be neither tyrant nor slave, but rather servants of YHVH, Life Unfolding. This is the fundamental message of Judaism. As Jews we are called upon to serve, bear witness to, and align ourselves with the God of Justice and Freedom.
This truth can become buried, however, in the struggle for survival. In the face of all the Pharaohs throughout history that have tried to hurl our babies into the Nile, to this very day we Jews can close ranks and read the story of the Exodus as merely a promise of our own survival, rather than as the bearer of soaring truths about the human condition. In the rote repetition of the tale, we also run the risk of becoming inured to its deeper message. How do we awaken again to the universal message of our story?
The African-American struggle for freedom and equality showed me the way. The Africans who were captured from their homes and forced into slavery in the New World were also forced to adopt their masters’ religion. But subversively, as these African slaves listened to their masters’ Bible, they heard their own lives in the story of the slaves in Egypt. The seeds of their own hope and liberation were embedded in the very heart of the teaching that their oppressors had forced upon them. When they sang “When Israel was in Egypt land … Let My people go,” they made the ancient story vibrate with new life and urgency.
Again, in this parashah, I turn to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fully understood the inspiring power of the story of the Exodus and the hope it gave to African-Americans. He embraced the prophetic voice of justice that is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible, and he awakened me to the inspiring message of my own heritage.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, is replete with biblical references:
Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children … [And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream …
Dr. King is quoting the Prophet Amos, who spoke these words in the name of God to the community of Israel in the eighth century BCE:
Spare me the sound of your hymns and the music of your lutes.
Rather, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream! (Amos 5:21–25)
Then Dr. King quotes the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3–5):
I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Dr. King frequently invoked the journey of Moses and the Children of Israel towards the Promised Land as the template for his own people’s struggle. He recognized it as a journey we need to take in each and every generation. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, Dr. King compared his own story to that of Moses and etched this indelible image with his final words:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I thank Dr. King and all African-Americans who continue to struggle against the ingrained racism of American history and life. I thank them for inspiring me with their fortitude and continued determination against the external, and also the internal, warping effects of oppression. And I equally thank them for taking my ancient story and reminding me that it speaks to us today and every day. For this is the plain instruction of the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation, every person must view himself or herself as personally leaving slavery in Egypt. And anyone who elaborates upon this story is to be praised!”
I thank Dr. King for bearing witness to the God or Power or Idea that I worship as a Jew and as a human being of conscience:
… there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice, and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled, we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice (The Power of Nonviolence, 1958).
“The universe is on the side of justice.” By recasting religious language into modern, non-personal metaphors, Dr. King gives me a vocabulary for speaking about my faith. For I do not believe in a supernatural and commanding God who directs the universe with his will. I do not read the story of the Exodus as a historical event. I do not wonder about the historicity of the plague of frogs or the slaying of the firstborn. Yet I do have an abiding faith in this central message of the Torah: that the universe is on the side of justice, and that we should be on the side of justice as well. This is what it means to me to serve God.
May the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continue to inspire us, today and for generations to come.