January 18, 2008
A little boy came home from religious school one Sunday and his dutiful parents asked him what he learned. With great excitement he told them about the story of Moses and the Israelites and their escape from Egypt. “It seems,” he said, “that the Egyptians launched a direct assault upon the Israelites with tanks, troops and artillery, as the Israelites tried to flee Egypt. The Jews counter-attacked with swarming aircraft and cluster bombs. They then used huge amphibious vehicles to cross the Red Sea and blew them up as the Egyptians pursued, drowning the enemy in the sea.”
Upon hearing this version of history, they suspiciously asked if that is really what the teacher taught? The child hung his head and took a deep breath and responded: “Not really! But if I told you what she really said, you would never believe it!”
This is the week that as part of our regular cycle of Torah reading we review the incredible story of the exodus from Egypt, including the final plague on the first born, Pharaoh’s decision to relent and then his change of heart, resulting in his pursuit of the Israelites into the parted Sea and their demise in the waters. We have been recounting this story for thousands of years, not only once a year in its regular sequence and again at Passover, but three times a day in our worship service. When we sing “Mi Chamocha-Who is like You O God,” this comes from the climax of the tale as we exult over our victory.
Why is it that we repeat this particular story continuously and in a variety of times and occasions? First is in order to remember our history. While we are comfortable and prosperous in our current situation, it was not always thus. Recalling history provides us the opportunity to appreciate where we are today and not take our status of freedom for granted.
Additionally, this episode is embedded with a variety of values and teachings basic to our religious tradition. When Moses challenges Pharaoh, this is the imperative to speak truth to power, the idea that we cannot be silent in the face of injustice. The whole story is premised upon faith with God. It is that faith which serves as an underpinning for our ancestors. And clearly one of the most prominent messages is that no person should be a slave; no person should be oppressed. It is not a coincidence that one of the most repeated phrases in the Torah is the idea that we should not oppress the stranger, for once we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Whether we have suffered in our day or not, we identify with all who oppressed based on a reinforced memory through our stories.
One feature about this particular story as opposed to others is that at the end we win! There are all too many tales which describe our oppression, inquisition, expulsion and death. With the defeat of the Egyptians, we celebrate and feel good about who we are and what we have accomplished with God’s help.
And there are heroes galore to admire: It starts with the famous trio of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. These are the siblings who guaranteed the survival first of Moses from birth and then the Jewish people. Not as well known is Nachshon ben Aminadab of the tribe of Judah. When God directs Moses to tell the people to march into the sea, there is serious hesitation as one might expect. It was Nachshon who literally and faithfully took the plunge into the waters. Only after his brave act did the waters part. We all need heroes worthy of emulation.
By retelling the tale of the exodus from Egypt, we provide hope for the future. Initially our plight seemed overwhelming, but we prevailed. Theologically, we speak of redemption. Once we were slaves and then we were free. Yet, we know that the story is not complete, we are still completing it. We look forward to ultimate redemption, which we equate with freedom, redemption for us and all people.
Indeed, we are blessed with a tradition, rich in stories. Each community has its stories, its foundation myths, whether based in fact or legend, which play a similar role for them and their journey.
I experienced another such story recently, by viewing the film, “The Great Debaters.” Starring and directed by Denzel Washington, it is a drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at all black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in 1935. He inspired his students to form a debate team, which in the film went on to challenge and triumph over Harvard, a black school over a white. It was one small step on the road to dignity and freedom for African Americans, a road that included the obstacles of bigotry, oppression, attacks and discrimination. It is a fictionalized version of a real event. In truth the team did defeat the reigning national debate champs, the University of Southern California, not Harvard, but they did not officially defeat them, since at the time they were not recognized as a real team. Blacks were not included until after World War II. However, actual people were depicted. One in particular was James Farmer Jr., who later went on to head CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. I distinctly remember his role in the Civil Rights Movement and hearing him speak, the last time being at the anniversary memorial for the three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi.
Sitting in the theater that day, I kept repeating to myself, “What a great story!” It was an OK movie, but a great story for African Americans fulfilling the role of what stories do for a community. And it had an important message for all of us. As Jews we have a 2000 year head start on stories to bring us together, the African American Community is comparatively just developing theirs.
These include slavery stories chronicling how people came to these shores and what they did and contributed upon their arrival. There are the tales of heroism and bravery from the Civil rights movement, as well as the role that African Americans have fulfilled in the wars of this country, the Tuskeegee Fly Boys just being one of them.
Jews have been observing holidays that mark our stories for centuries. The African American community is evolving their sacred times. Kwanza, recently passed, links them to their African roots and values from the past for the present. And their community is coming to appreciate many heroes, men and women to remember, honor and emulate: Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Shirley Chisholm, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and now Barak Obama. Of course, this past Tuesday was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King with the national holiday in his honor and memory this coming Monday. He is at the top of the current list of modern heroes. It is no wonder that there was upset with even the perception that his star might be diminished by comments from Hillary Clinton. Though I am convinced she meant no disrespect, but was speaking historically, still there is great sensitivity. Just as we Jews are continually alert to the slightest affront to Jews and Judaism, so too the African American community has every right to be. Racism continues to be alive and strong in America today.
We have certainly seen it here in our home State of Louisiana. The noose is a powerful symbol of hate and intimidation rooted in a history that included lynchings of blacks by white. Whether on a tree outside of a school in Jena or displayed in a public office in Jefferson Parish, it is a not so subtle message. Even an offhand link of the word “lynching” with Tiger Woods by a Golf Network reporter sets off alarms. Many have of course argued that much of the delay in responding to the Katrina catastrophe was the result of racist attitudes, placing the value of black lives at a lower priority.
In some cases racism results in discriminatory action, which in this day and age is illegal. But it also manifests itself in attitudes. Not long ago I was sitting in a barbershop, when the banter between the barber and another customer included a suggestion that he should have had his “Closed” sign up a few minutes earlier when an African American patron had entered. “You should have told him you don’t cut nappy hair.” As you can imagine I was not very comfortable. Then someone launched into what was sure to be a racist joke… “A colored man walked into a shop.. at which point I stood up and interrupted with…. when he saw the rabbi, who wasn’t going to laugh at the joke.” An awkward silence ensued, but they got the point.
Three weeks ago we must have had about 15 college students staying at our home over New Years. They celebrated New Years Eve in the Quarter. Two of them, unable to find a regular cab to bring them back to our house, wound up taking a ride with a random man, who offered to drive them for a fee, not a brilliant idea of course in the light of day. While telling everyone how they stupidly risked their lives getting into this car with a black guy, my daughter questioned, what difference did it make that he was black? It didn’t. Had it been a random white guy, would they have been any less foolish? Prejudice can be expressed in subtle ways.
We are living in historic times with the campaign of Barak Obama for the White House, the first African American with a legitimate prospect for victory. Many fear racism could block that reality. In the New Hampshire primary Obama entered election day with a huge lead in the polls, only to see victory by Hillary Clinton. We all know that the only poll that counts is an actual election. However it is disturbing to read that many experts believe that when responding to pollsters people will provide what they intellectually believe is the politically correct unbiased response, but when actually voting allow their bias to have sway. Political observers suggest that Bobby Jindal’s loss to Kathleen Blanco four years ago can be attributed to the fact that many voters were opposed to a candidate of color. I can only hope that his recent election as Governor is an indicator that the electorate is ready to vote based on quality of candidates, not the color of their skin.
Fifty years ago speaking to a Jewish audience Dr. Martin Luther King wrote: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
May his words be our resolve as we continue to make the waters part for all to be redeemed and free.