In Michael Walzer’s book Exodus and Revolution, he reminds us that the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the foundational story of the Jewish people, and ultimately represents a journey towards a goal of moral progress and transformation that is universal. We learn a great deal about the experience in Egypt, the plagues against Pharaoh, and ultimately, we learn about the freeing of the people to worship God in the wilderness.
All of the instructions as to how the impact of this story will be felt for generations are packed into this week’s portion, Parashat Bo. The very name of the portion, Bo, which means “come,” reminds us how liberation and justice don’t happen when we distance ourselves from the work that needs to be done. God sends Moses to Pharaoh with a singular word that should mean “go” to Pharaoh, but instead conveys how Moses must come close to the root of the oppression, in order to free the people.
This story of liberation is our sacred mythology. We use this story to try to make sense in a senseless world and these early chapters of Exodus always coincide with the commemoration of Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday, and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, amplifying their messages of justice and freedom.
The text instructs the Israelites and us, that this is a ritual and a festival for all time. The Torah imagines God saying to Moses and the people, that later when they will enter the land, their children will inevitably ask, “mah ha’avodah hazot lachem?” What does this ritual, this service, mean to you?
Four times in the Torah we find variations on this question poised on the lips of our children. Three of them occur in this portion (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, and 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20). Each one of them garners a different answer. The service is 1) because of the sacrifice of Pesah, when God passed over the houses of the Israelites and struck down the Egyptians, 2) because of what “God did for me when I went forth from Egypt,” 3) because it was the strength of God that we came forth from Egypt, and 4) that we were slaves in Egypt and God freed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
What does this story mean to us today? How do we come close to the inequality, the racism, the poverty, despair, disenfranchisement, inequality in education and mass incarceration, that plagues our country in 2018? The sacred story of origin of the Jewish people and the universal message of speaking truth to power must be like the beams of a house – not seen from the outside, but are the structures which hold the house together so people can live inside.
What does all this mean to you? The sacred myth of the Exodus has helped Jews situate ourselves in history and orient us towards questions of faith and communal responsibility. The universal nature of the Exodus story is one that challenges tyranny and liberates oppression, and identifies those qualities as Godly. We need this sacred myth to inform and structure our lives because by knowing why we do what we do, what it all means to us, and by teaching it to our children, we strengthen their understanding of their place in the world, and their resolve to root out the modern plagues and pharaohs from up close.
Dr. King shaped the conscience of our nation, and taught us that the time is always right to do what is right. His legacy continues to call on us to understand that that the ultimate measure of humanity is where we stand at times of challenge and controversy, not in moments of comfort and convenience. Rabbi Heschel taught that there is a meaning beyond the painful absurdities of the world; that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world. Our prayers, if they are to be meaningful and impactful, must be subversive, and they must seek to overthrow and ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, and falsehood.
Against the backdrop of the divisive policies and hateful rhetoric of this moment, everything we do as a community and a nation must move us to stand together with hope, love, and solidarity; to take action with compassion and determination as our teachers Reverend King and Rabbi Heschel exemplified. That’s where our essential work lies.