This posting is a version of the sermon I gave last Friday, for MLK Weekend
It is appropriate that tonight is a Torah Shabbat where we find ourselves in the early chapters of Sh’mot – the 2nd book of the Torah – Exodus. We find our ancestors have become slaves in Egypt, and we begin the narrative that will lead to our redemption. And this is Martin Luther King Jr Weekend. Martin Luther King Jr – an inspiring leader and orator who drew heavily on the freedom narrative in the Torah to point the way forward for this country.
And while we remember and celebrate his legacy, and can clearly look back and see the progress that has been made since he led the fight for civil rights for African Americans, recent events continue to remind us that their freedom story is incomplete. Just this week, major highways around Boston were shut down during the morning commute by those protesting to keep reminding us that Black Lives Matter and there is a systemic set of problems that have not been satisfactorily addressed in our country where our African American brother and sisters are concerned. The picture is more complicated and nuanced than in MLK’s time. ‘How can it be’, we ask, ‘that we can live in an era where a person of color is President of the USA, and yet such inculcated and systemic racism continues to be present in our society?’
Let’s take a look at this week’s parsha, and the midrashim that our Rabbis spun from this text to reflect on what freedom and redemption truly look like, as these insights can inform our understanding of why there is more work to be done in our society today.
Let’s begin with a core text that becomes the basis for the 4 cups of wine at a Passover Seder:
6 “Say, therefore, to the Children of Israel, ‘I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.
7 ‘Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
The Midrash on these two verses gives us the historical background:
“There are four expressions of redemption: I will bring you out—I will deliver you—I will redeem you and I will take you. These correspond to the four decrees which Pharaoh issued regarding them. The Sages accordingly ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Passover to correspond with these four expressions, in order to fulfill the verse: I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:13).”
The Jerusalem Talmud expands on this:
“Why do we have four cups of wine? R. Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Benayah, this refers to four stages in the redemption. . . “I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” Even if God had left us in Egypt to be slaves, God would have ceased the burdensome yoke. For this alone we would have been grateful to Him and therefore we drink the first cup. “I will deliver you from their slavery.” We drink the cup of salvation for God delivered us completely from serving them. “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm . . . .” Because God confused them and crushed them on our behalf so that they could no longer afflict us, we drink the third cup. “I will take you . . . .” The greatest aspect of the redemption is that God brought us near and granted us also spiritual redemption. For this we raise the fourth cup.
What these Rabbis are teaching us is that true freedom does not happen in a single act. True freedom is never simply the removal of one kind of enslavement or limitation. We can look back at the Torah narrative and see that our ultimate state of freedom was represented by first escaping from slavery in Egypt. But then we began a period of wandering. We received Revelation and we are presented with a whole system of laws, practices and ethical principles that provide the scaffolding for a society that can better ensure the redemptive possibilities for all, albeit through the limited lens of society at that time (where slaves were still permitted, and women were not equal to men).
Finally, we are able to enter the Promised Land. This is the place where we have the ability for true self-realization, where no other group determine what is possible for us.
We can highlight a similar set of steps when we pull back the lens of history and look at the longer perspective. Jews took a giant leap in the redemptive journey when the era of Enlightenment in Europe brought us the status of full citizens. However, as our history cruelly demonstrated to us, this alone could not secure our sense of freedom while a society continued to view us as ‘other’. Theodore Herzl understood this, and the world via the United Nations was finally willing to accept this after the Holocaust. And so the State of Israel came into being. Whether we choose to make it our home or not, its existence – even the troubled existence that it continues to have with its neighbors – provides a place of ultimate self-realization for us as a people.
And what of the African-American experience in the US? We see that significant stages of redemption have come into being. Freed from slavery. But then subject to Jim Crow laws. Civil rights granted, but other socio-economic and cultural factors continuing to make a less systematic but still present kind of segregation a reality in the lives of many. Why is this still so?
There is one step in that ancient midrash that I skipped over – the step where God confuses and crushes Pharaoh and his army so that they can no longer oppress us. Hitler was defeated. The Jewish people won the war of Independence that had to be fought right after the modern State of Israel was declared. Is this step inevitable? Is the only way to truly arrive at redemption to overthrow those who were once the oppressors? No-one wants to see any kind of literal war in this country again. Having just returned from a vacation in Charleston and Savannah, I have a new awareness of the devastation wrought by America’s civil war. I hear fear expressed in voices that wonder whether peaceful protest might inflame some to literally fight back against our police forces; fears that might not be entirely unfounded given what has already transpired in recent weeks, even if only by the hand of one or two unstable and violent individuals. But I reject the inevitability or even the necessity as loudly as MLK Jr himself rejected violence as a means to accomplishing his ends.
Nevertheless, we have a real challenge that we, as a society, must be willing to confront. I look at the realities for many members of our African American communities and I recognize that those realities have been created by a complex set of systemic issues and remnants of a history of oppression that continues to leave its mark. Attempts that were made to rebalance society by providing additional points of entry into schools, colleges, the workplace, and the voting booth have actually been undone in recent years by many local and state legislative bodies. The Supreme Court itself has contributed to the undoing of some of these systems, however blunt and clumsy they might have been, that helped to level the playing field just a bit. This is not right. We must not, through our actions or through our silence, be contributors to the hand of Pharaoh that continues to shape the lives of African Americans in our country.
How can we do our part? There are many civil rights organizations who are leading the way at this time that we can work with and support. But there is no better place for us to start than our Reform movement’s very own Religious Action Center. Get on their mailing list. Respond to their calls for advocacy and action. They work with broad coalitions of organizations to help get legislation passed in Washington that can provide the system-wide structures through which change for the better can come. For example, right now you can sign up to support their call for the ‘End Racial Profiling Act’. The End Racial Profiling Act would legally prohibit racial profiling, ensure specialized instruction in federal law enforcement training, condition state and local governments’ receipt of federal funds on the successful adoption of anti-racial profiling policies, award Justice Department grants to state and local governments that best implement practices that defeat racial profiling, and position the U.S. Attorney General as watchdog to assess such practices.
At the end of February we will be taking our 10th grade Confirmation Class on our annual trip to learn with the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. They will learn how their own powers of advocacy and action can be informed by Jewish values, and how to assess whether legislation being voted on by our politicians brings us closer to a vision of the kind of society we want to live in, or further from it. They end their trip with a visit to the offices of our Congressional and State legislators, to lobby on those issues that they most care about, on behalf of the membership of the approximately 900 Reform congregations in North America.
Don’t just leave this work to our teens. The journey to freedom is not complete until we can say of others, as we can say of ourselves that we have been brought out, delivered, redeemed and taken to a place where we have the potential for full self-realization within the society in which we live. In 1958 as he stood before the American Jewish Congress, MLK said these words:
My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.