Real freedom, from Moses to MLK

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein serves Congregation Shaare Emeth.

By Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

On Jan. 14, 1963, speaking at the National Conference on Religion and Race, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is this Lord, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go?” 

He goes on to preach that Jewish Americans and African-Americans are responsible for each other’s liberation, and that all Americans have a chance to find redemption through their efforts to combat racism.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read about the final days of this “first conference” and learn an important lesson about what real freedom looks like. 

The portion opens withGod instructing Moses to go before Pharaoh to again demand freedom for the Hebrew slaves and to threaten Egypt with more plagues if this request is not met. The Egyptians have already suffered greatly from the first seven plagues, so when Moses describes the destruction that the eighth plague – locusts – will bring, Pharaoh’s advisers beg him to reconsider. 

“Our people have been through enough,” they say, and they wonder whether there isn’tsome way that Egypt can save face and prevent further devastation.

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“What if we keep their women and children and just let the men go to worship this God that Moses keeps talking about? That’s a good deal,” they reason, “and Moses would be a fool not to take it.” 

Pharaoh agrees, but when he proposes this compromise Moses rejects it outright. Moses says, in essence, “When our chains have been broken and we leave this place, we leave with everyone – young and old, women and men, the sick and the well. No one is left behind, not one.”  

He makes it clear from the very beginning: Freedom that does not include everyone is no freedom at all.

How fitting that we read Parashat Bo, and this radical understanding of freedom, during the week leading up to our nation’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

Dr. King, like Moses, shared this same inclusive vision of freedom. He is famously quoted as saying, “Until all are free, none are free.” And in his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King, Moses and Rabbi Heschel remind us of what is often so easy to ignore: that my political, economic and spiritual freedom are bound up in the political, economic and spiritual freedom of others, and that I cannot experience true freedom until all who are oppressed experience the same freedoms that I do. 

These three leaders tell us that freedom, mutuality and interdependence go hand in hand.  They teach usthat we cannot isolate ourselves from one another and expect us to take on the responsibility of fighting our own oppressors on our own. We must stand together.

Because the truth is, antisemitism is a threat not only to Jews, but to the whole of society. Racism is a threat not just to people of color, but to the whole of society. Sexism and violence against women are threats not just to women, but to the whole of society. Homophobia and transphobia are threats not only to the LGBTQ community, but to the whole of society. And Islamophobia is a threat not just to Muslims, but to the whole of society.

Though the Exodus has long ended, the fight for true freedom continues.  For it is as political philosopher Michael Walzer has written: “First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to that land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

As we study Parashat Bo this week, let us recall our first lessons in freedom, and let us recommit ourselves to joining with others in the fight for this kind of inclusive freedom for all.