We are in the throes of our Exodus narrative. Last week, the first seven plagues befell Egypt. This week, the final four. Last week was my 4th-year sermon at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion in Cincinnati, and I spoke on Parshas Va’era. Many of the themes, even the language used, in last week’s parsha are relevant to this week’s parsha, for instance, “Let my people go!” This phrase from last week’s parsha is repeated again and again in this week’s parsha. Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh on behalf of Am Yisrael to plead for permission to leave Egypt and wander the desert toward freedom. Moses is directed by G-d to go before Pharaoh and say, “שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־עַמִּ֖י / shalach et-ami,” or “Let my people go!” Moses approached Pharaoh five times in last week’s parsha and Moses approaches him again in this week’s parsha, pleading, “Let my people go.” However, as the plagues befall Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and he grows increasingly spiteful of Am Yisrael.
Last week and this week’s parsha are a sort of Genesis to our people. In Egypt, we were shackled in bondage. Again and again this story has repeated itself for our people. Exodus set the tone for our people, as it still does today. Again and again, we have suffered; we have been victims. Again and again, ruthless tyrants have deprived us of our humanity, our freedom and our lives.
But we have also repeatedly stood up to pharaohs, tyrants, and demagogues. In our parsha, Moses and Aaron do not go before Pharaoh one or two times. They go before Pharaoh again and again. They are persistent and do not give up. They endure and prevail. This is also the story of our people. One side of our story cannot be complete without the other.
This is how I opened my 4th-year sermon last week. My sermon delves into the history of anti-Semitism and ponders theological perspectives as they relate to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. I talk about various Holocaust and post-Holocaust theologians, including Rabbi Kalman Shapira, Zelig Kalmanovitch and Rabbi Louis Jacob. I talk about spiritual resistance, the place of Never Again and its meaning to our people. I talk about the freedom of the Soviet Jewry movement, Natan Sharansky and the role my institution must play in our future as clergy. I passionately call for our institution at HUC-JIR, and my generation in particular, to play a more active role in the battle against anti-Semitism.
But I want to return to something overlooked in my last sermon that seems relevant to this week’s parsha. Both last week and this week, we read in our parsheyot not simply “שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־עַמִּ֖י / shalach et-ami,” / “שַׁלַּ֥ח עַמִּ֖י / Shalach ami”—“Let my people go!”—in various Hebrew morphological forms, but those words are typically followed by the word “וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי / V’yaavduni,” or “and [so] they may worship me.”
What does this fuller phrase mean? What, if any, relationship does freedom have to our ability to worship? Freedom is a core principle of this nation. The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Article Six of the United States Constitution provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This foundational text has been the guiding principle for our nation and has been used to protect marginalized groups, including American Jews, throughout American History.
We, American Jews, live during an unprecedented point in human history. In contrast to the pain European Jews have experienced, the American Jewish community has had a very limited engagement with anti-Semitism. Our freedom in this nation has traditionally protected us. The Constitution has been formulative to this experience.
But what does that mean for our people? Has this unprecedented period of our history emboldened our faith in G-d? Recall what happens to our people once they return to the Land of Israel from Exodus. They establish a Davidic line, but as the generations branch outward, growing further in time and distance from our Exodus narrative, faithlessness and idolatry eventually corrupt both Israel and Judah at various points of their histories. That is to say, with great freedom comes great responsibility.
We live at a similar juncture in Jewish history. We have trickled in by mighty streams and waves of migration to this nation. The generations closest to our great Exoduses from all four corners of the Earth to this great nation have aged. Our Holocaust survivors have aged. The survivors of our Nakba from Arab lands have aged, too. For these great generations, freedom meant survival. The expression and internalization of Jewish identity and religion for these generations was interlocked with freedom. It was freedom that assured these expressions.
The vast majority of American Jews today are disconnected from these experiences. As we have become more privileged in America, we have assumed falsities, like it, anti-Semitism, cannot happen here. The gradual uptick in anti-Semitism over the past four years proves otherwise. We cannot assume freedom without responsibility. Our responsibility must be in fighting anti-Semitism. Serving G-d and completing this mission are one and the same.
As we have read today in Parshat Bo, our narrative shows that again and again, a tyrant has risen up against us, and again and again, we have prevailed. Our service to G-d is the very act of defiance against tyranny and oppression. Today, we have been called to stand up for our people. We will only prevail if we are persistent. We must not be complacent, and we must not excuse anti-Semitism. We need an overwhelming voice to say that never again starts now!