D’var Torah: Shemot is a Reminder to Fight for Freedom and Equality for All

We are back in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, in our Torah cycle and once again find ourselves re-reading the story of our ancestors’ oppression and eventual liberation.  In this week’s parashah Vaera, Gd uses a series of expressions to describe our redemption from Egypt:

I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, … I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” (Exodus 6:6-8).

Midrashic interpretation of these verses are the basis for the four cups of wine that are the foundation of our Pesach seder, and some say they illustrate the various stages of our people’s emancipation. But Gd’s pledge actually has five components.  In honor of this final step, the rabbis teach, we have a fifth cup of wine – the Cup of Elijah – yet this one is not drunk.  It is a symbol of the world to come, the world as we want it to be.  There is still work to be done to arrive at this fifth stage.

The reading of the Exodus story never aligns on the Jewish calendar with Pesach, but coincidentally, we do read this part of the Torah in mid-January just as we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr Day.  Ideally MLK Day is both an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. King and think about the inequities in our own communities.  This year on MLK Day, for the first time, I read fully Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was struck by the many parallels between his pursuit of equality for the Black community and Moshe’s fight against Pharoah to free the Israelites:

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. … Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

At the seder we read, B’chol Dor Vador – In every generation, one is obligated to see themself as one who personally went out from Egypt. But can free, privileged people ever really understand what oppression feels like?  I don’t think we can, but we can internalize the message of the fifth cup.  The Exodus story is about my people’s freedom but the moral imperative I learn from the Torah and hagaddah is that I must actively work on behalf of others to create a more free and just society, and help achieve that fifth and final stage of redemption. We each have a responsibility to carry on the legacies of Moshe Rebbeinu, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the many others who have fought throughout history for equality.  It is a tremendous undertaking, one without easy remedies, but as we continue to read how our ancient ancestors fought for and gained their freedom, we must recommit ourselves to pursuing justice and liberty for all of Gd’s creatures.