Friday, January 12, 2018

Parashat Va'Era & MLK Weekend

In just a few months, we will read from our Passover Haggadah four promises to go with each of the four cups of wine throughout the seder: “God spoke to Moses and said to him …‘Say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and (1) I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, (2) I will rid you from the from their slavery, and (3) I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and (4) I will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God’” (Exodus 6:5-7).
This passage comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’Eira, in which there is one more promise: “And I will bring you into the land, concerning which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 6:8). The Haggadah doesn’t include this line, and the Seder doesn’t talk much about the destination of this Exodus. The passage in the parasha is being related to Moses to tell to the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, but God will not bring Moses nor the generation of bondage into the land. The Torah ends with a new generation on the precipice and Moses dying overlooking a land he may never enter. Why does the Torah and the Haggadah leave us hanging like this?
Perhaps that is because, spiritually speaking, we are still in the wilderness. There is still bondage in this world. God still hears the groaning of the oppressed, and waits for a generation that is truly ready to be free. But, as the poem in our prayer book says, there is no way to get from slavery to liberation except by joining hands and marching together.
On this today’s episode of Judaism Unbound, Yitz Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a leader in pluralistic Judaism points out that there are three inherent truths in understanding that “all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God,” which is a bedrock of Jewish worldview. Another important foundation is that God is infinite. If God is infinite and humans are each made in the image of God, than every image of God is unique, and every unique human is an equal representation of the Divine, not in spite of their individuality but precisely because of it. The full diversity of humanity is what makes us all a reflection of the Divine. Each of us alone reflects only one aspect, but it takes all of us together on equal footing to paint the full picture of God’s image. And lastly, that because it takes each of us in our individuality to make up the full array of God’s representations here on Earth, each human has infinite worth. From Moses the fearless leader to every lowly Hebrew slave, every life is sacred to God and worth saving from the bondage of slavery. Every life made hard by years of oppression is worth taking on innumerable further risks to liberate in the hopes that one day, all people might be free, might truly be treated equally, might truly be honored as an image of Divinity.
This weekend, as we mark the birthdate of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember his legacy and honor it by continuing to fight for the equality and inherent worth of every human life. The Reverend Doctor was a man who knew how to stand up against Pharaohs, face down plagues, and march toward freedom. He knew how to speak to a people with an anguished spirit due to their cruel treatment. 

And just as Moses had Aaron and Miriam and Nachshon, Martin had Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and countless other leaders who helped drive the movement forward in different ways. With many efforts and voices, civil rights movement brought long overdue change and brought this country much closer to equality than it had ever been before, just as the Israelites transformed from an enslaved collection of tribes to a free people. But, just as the people who will leave Egypt in next week’s parasha will be unable to complete their journey into the Promised Land, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s could not fix all of the racial and economic injustices in this country. These are changes too great, too difficult for one generation to endeavor entirely alone. It will take a new generation to carry on the work and continue to strive for liberation and equality for every person created b’tzelem Elohim.
That is why our prayer book says we are eternally in Egypt, that there is always more work to be done to bring us into a Holy Land. That is why our Torah ends with Deuteronomy and not with Joshua. That is why our Haggadah leaves out the fifth promise of this week’s parasha. We must not get complacent or too reliant on God alone to fix the affairs of humans. We must not turn away from injustices or threats just because they seem to not impact us. We must be ready to work together, to defend each other, to hold hands and march forward toward justice and liberation for everyone. And may we find freedom and dignity for all.

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