When I teach the Exodus story to AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism students, I share that it is one of the greatest gifts that the Jewish people has given to the world. This story, which we will begin reading this shabbat, is the moment where we stake claim to a God who sides with justice over power, where lowly slaves are seen as God’s beloved children, where tyrants and dictators are brought crashing down, and where we’re taught that those who are brought down by degradation will be carried on eagles’ wings to a place of dignity.
It is no wonder then, that the Exodus story has served as an inspiration to countless other marginalized and degraded peoples throughout history – most notably this week, in the writings and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his fight against racial injustice. As we come together to commemorate and honor his legacy this year, I find myself asking, if he were alive today, what would he be fighting for? Undoubtably, he would continue his fight against racism in America, whose roots are vast and deep in this country – needing attention in every sector of our society, from police reform to the mortality rate of Black birthing women. I’m convinced though, that if alive today, he simply couldn’t stand by without speaking out on other issues, as he taught us, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What would catch his attention most? Would it be the plight of the Ukrainian people, approaching a year into the atrocities committed against them. Would he be enraged on behalf of Iranian women, calling out human rights abuses and lifting up the names of those brave souls putting their lives on the line for the sake of justice? Or might he be an advocate for women’s rights in America, for women’s bodily autonomy, helping organize communities to ensure women can get the access to healthcare that is their right? If he were here, how might he be inspiring us to reengage with the Exodus story, again and again?
Next week, as we honor his legacy, we arrive at parshat Va’era, a section of the Exodus story we know well: when God sends Moses and Aaron to ask Pharoah to let the Israelite slaves go free, and when he refuses, they begin to unleash the first seven plagues: blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects, cattle plague, boils, and hail. But just as God sends Moses and Aaron off on their mission, just as the anticipation is building, at that moment the text is interrupted by a tedious and monotonous genealogy – a list of names of fathers and sons, wives and fathers-in-law, telling us who married whom, how many sons they had and how many years they lived.
It forces us to stop, to pause mid-story, at the height of the excitement, and ask – what does this boring list of names have to teach me? A closer look at the list reveals that its main focus is on the line of Jacob’s son Levi, the line that produced Moses and Aaron themselves, tracking all the way through Aaron’s sons – the ones who would become the first priests to serve the Israelite nation in the desert, helping the people to maintain their relationship with God into the future. While the word “story” often conjures the notion of a narrative – the opposite of a list of names – it is precisely this list, which links the story of Jacob and his sons at the end of Genesis, with this story that begins the book of Exodus, which continues all the way to the arrival at the Promised Land. This genealogy is both recalling the old promise that God made to our ancestors, while forecasting the Israelite society that will be built only after the current events of the Exodus from Egypt – both our past and our future. We pause in the midst of our struggle to gain some perspective, to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, and to strengthen our resolve with the dream of our shared future.
For Dr. King, I don’t know what injustice would most call his attention, but I know he would be calling us to attention. So let us take the time this week, in his memory, to take a look at the story of current injustice we feel called to address. Let us take a moment to pause in the middle of the action, to assess whose legacy we’re carrying and to sharpen the vision of the dream we’re working toward. May we continue to find strength in telling our shared story, and may it inspire us to continue building a world of greater justice and dignity for all peoples.
Zekher tzadik livracha – may the memory of this righteous one be a blessing.