Illustrative: Arlington National Cemetery, February 6, 1968, including Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
In a letter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l wrote: “ Even without words our march was worship. I felt like my legs were praying.” Three years later, in March 1968, Rabbi Heschel introduced Dr. King at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly with these words: “Where in America today, do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us.” Ten days later, Dr. King was assassinated.
The prophetic work of Heschel and King that we remember as we read these early chapters of Exodus and the Jewish foundational story, that ultimately represents a universal journey towards a goal of moral progress and transformation, never loses its power. We retell the story of our experience in Egypt, the plagues against Pharaoh, and we learn that freedom is as much about faith as it is about justice.
If Egypt is the symbol of exploitation, crushing humiliation, and domination, the ancient Israelites are the symbol of a yearning to ameliorate what is profoundly wrong in society, and the faith that enabled them to remain attached to the eternal possibility that life can change for the good.
Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that the central motif that bridges these two paradigms in this week’s portion of Va’era is a notion of stubbornness, determination, and the hardening of heart. I have been thinking about these qualities in anticipation of the inauguration of President Elect Biden and even more so, of Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris. Senator Harris is the first woman, woman of color, and South Asian woman elected to the second highest office in America, and she stands on the shoulders of so many women of color and indigenous women who paved the way in American history, refusing to yield to the obstacles in their way.
In the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus we learned how the midwives, Batya daughter of Pharaoh, Yocheved, mother of Moses, Miriam, his sister, and Tzipporah, Moses’ wife profoundly refused to accept the status quo and stood fast in the face of obstacles. Their moral awareness, conscience and instinct led to justice, their stubbornness paved the way for redemption.
And yet, when the Torah imagines that God told Moses that when he and Aaron would go before Pharaoh to demand freedom, God says, va’ani ekashe et lev Paroah — “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I might multiply my signs and marvels in Egypt” (Ex. 7:3).
What does it mean that Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people go may not just be pre-ordained, but somehow, enabled by God? The rabbis understood that Pharaoh had acted without remorse or any sense of wrongdoing. From the beginning, Pharaoh was free to determine his response to Moses’ plea for freedom, as well as his subsequent reactions to the plagues. At a certain point, however, Pharaoh’s ability to turn back, and really let the people go, became impossible. Pharaoh’s freedom to choose ossified, and the Israelites remained slaves, and the Egyptians suffered the plagues.
In a very real sense, Pharaoh represents our worst psycho-spiritual nightmare. His choices had grave implications for himself and his people, and the more entrenched he became in his response, the more stripped he became of his own freedom of will. Pharaoh’s stubbornness was due to a lack of morality. In The United States, the stripping of Native lands, slavery, racism, and discrimination all represent the same kind of ossification of hatred in America that we saw on full display last week in the insurrection at the Capitol fueled by the President’s lies and very own hardened heart.
In an age when ego, self-importance, and narcissism lead, the kind of stubbornness and determination needed is that which will uproot the entrenchment. But the Israelites are called kotzer ruah — suffering a constriction of spirit. The Israelites’ stubbornness was characterized by a lack of faith due to despair. They didn’t immediately embrace the power of God to set them free. The text tells us “v’lo sham’u el Moshe”— they were so weighed down by their suffering, they could not even hear or heed Moses.
This am keshe oref – this stiff-necked people — are our ancestors. Stubborn yet determined, skeptical yet resolute. We know the Israelites’ subsequent wandering in the wilderness will be due in part to their impatience, their fear, and their burgeoning faith — and so, we can empathize with their struggle.
Still yet, God is also depicted as steadfast, insistent, and stubborn as well. God stands against those who deny justice and freedom. God stands as a symbol of the kind of stubbornness actually needed, for those who dream of a different reality, and are willing to do what is necessary to achieve it.
This weekend’s national commemoration of Dr. King is not just about paying tribute to a visionary leader and his prophetic message. It will also be the backdrop for the inauguration when we will bear witness to the same determined stubbornness to not accept our country as it is, but to transform it into what it might yet be.
Everything we do as a community, a people, and a nation must move us towards a wider opening of the heart, resisting the temptation to be hardened, immovable, and refusing to change course when necessary. That is where God dwells in America today. We are called to use whatever steadfast, determined, and insistent resolve we possess to transform the world in holiness. The perpetual plagues of the universe must inspire us that our own kotzer ruah – our own experiences of constriction of spirit must not paralyze us but motivate us to pursue a just society so that everyone might indeed, be “free at last.”