Take the long view and hold on

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is a community chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service and teaches at B’nai Amoona, Kol Rinah, and Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

In 1853, Theodore Parker, an abolitionist and advocate for women’s suffrage and a Unitarian minister, preached these words: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

A century later, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began preaching a paraphrase of Parker’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Parker and King stand among many men and women who have fought for and reflected on the long and impossibly difficult path of helping America and Americans live up to their better angels. In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, God also shares with Moses the knowledge that the path to real justice and freedom is long and requires strength, sacrifice and persistence. 

God does not hide this from Moses. God tells him that Pharaoh will not heed to the call for freedom and that Pharaoh will submit only when forced to do so. The reluctant Moses will face resistance from Pharaoh and the Israelites, and this will lead to great suffering through the plagues. But alongside this reality of what Moses is up against, God shares with Moses a sustaining vision and promise of liberation and redemption: 

“I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt; and I will deliver you from their servitude; and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments;  and I will take you to be my people and I will be your God; and you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians; and I will bring you to the land … (Exodus 6:6-8). 

In this speech that forms the basis for the stages of freedom and redemption symbolized by the four cups of wine of the Passover seder, God tells Moses and us that despite the demoralizing setbacks and defeats, the Divine force of justice and freedom will be with us, much as the spiritual and civil rights song also pointed the way: “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” 

The struggle with Pharaohs and governments that resist the call to justice and compassion is ongoing and persistent. God gave us the long view, so in the face of injustice, as you resist, protect, lift up your voices and join together, remember to keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.