Our God is Marching On
Parashat Va’era 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Our God is Marching On
“Ani Adonai, va’era el Avraham, el Yitzchak, v’el Ya’acov, be’El Shaddai, ushmi Adonai lo nodati lahem.” – “I am the Eternal, Who appeared before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make Myself known to them by My Name YHWH.” (Gen. 6:3).
At face value, this statement speaks to a theological reality: a notion of progressive revelation. God’s Name YHWH, which we could inadequately translate as ‘IsWasWillBe’ was not revealed to the Patriarchs but is now revealed to Moses and the Israelites.
Let us consider a possible and timely interpretation that is not primarily about theology; at least not in the classical understanding. God’s revelation of God’s own Name is not mere philosophical abstraction: it is deeply embedded in relationship.
We will skip ahead a few verses:
“Vayedaber Moshe ken el B’nei Yisrael, v’lo shamu el Moshe mikztor ruach um’avodah kashah” – “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed [‘shortness of breath’] by cruel bondage [‘harsh labor].” (Gen. 6:9).
These verses appear disconnected. The first talks about the revelation of a Divine Reality: the other about the discouragement that the Israelites feel when confronted with the possibility of liberation. But they are not disconnected; on the contrary, there are deeply intertwined, sealed together by God’s covenantal promise of Redemption that the Torah communicates powerfully in the five verses in between:
“I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. 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 and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord.” (Gen. 6:5-8).
These first ten verses of Parashat Va’era speak to a double truth: we need vision but we also need hope. We need strategy for social change but we also need stamina. And most importantly, we need to be reminded why all of this matters. History is an ebb and flow of progress and regression, of disappointments and moral victories. It is easy to feel disheartened.
There are disheartening things taking place in our world. For those of us who are immigrants, who are minorities, who are of color, who are part of the LGBTQ community, who are Muslim, who are women, who are Jews – these last few years have been hard.
From personal experience, I can share the discouraging encounters I had in the United Kingdom in the wake of the Brexit referendum when my son and I were racially abused in public transit by an angry Englishman for speaking our mother tongue - lumped together with ‘all those foreigners who come here and take our jobs’.
So many of us have those stories, either in our own lives, in the narratives of our ancestors or in the experiences of our loved ones. We have seen the social discourse harden in all quarters of society, on all levels of leadership. This hardness was brought closer to home these last few days when we were informed, by a report in a local newspaper, that a Neo Nazi group had leafleted racist leaflets in one of Iowa City’s diverse neighborhoods.
I don’t know about you, but these times can pull us under in quick despair, in as the Torah calls it, ‘miktzor ruach’, shortness of breath. Maybe some of us feel that shortness of breath; reminded of old and unresolved prejudices, deprived of the oxygen of hope. How do we shift the discourse, we ask, in a world where false equivalencies are created between the purveyors of hatred and the defenders of freedom? Where immigrants and refugees are blamed wholesale all over the Global North for society’s ills? Where different faiths and ethnicities are pitted against each other and where the threat of war and terror looms large in our lives?
All of these things can feel like an ‘avodah kashah’, harsh labor, or cruel bondage. We feel ensnared by our feelings of despair and inadequacy. How could we, like our Israelite ancestors, ever hear a message of hope?
Yet, we only need to read a few verses back to be offered hope, perspective, oxygen.
It lies in the revelation of God – in the appearing of God at the crucial junctions of our lives. Not just before Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, not just before Moses as he removes the sandals of his feet, but before all of us. The promise of Va’era is not elegant theology but heartfelt relationship. The promise of Va’era is the ‘cri de coeur’ of the Israelites – the ‘tza’akah g’dolah’, the great outcry that rallies mercy. It is the unfolding of God’s Name and with that, a vision of truth and justice.
I am not sure whether it is by Divine design or fortuitous serendipity, but this weekend, the weekend of Parashat Va’era, is also Martin Luther King Weekend, culminating in Martin Luther King Day on Monday. If we seek to unify the polarities of despair and hope, then we only need to look to the Prophetic example of Dr. King. In his sermon ‘Our God is Marching On!’ delivered on the steps of the state capital building in Montgomery on the 25th of March 1965, Dr. King knew how to tap into anger as well as rally compassion. Please allow me to read an excerpt of his great sermon, and apologize for the limitations of my delivery.
“Today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world: we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us.
We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us…Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing, until every ghetto of social and economic depression dissolves and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe and sanitary housing. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past and Negroes and whites study side by side in the socially healing context of the classroom. Let us march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist.
Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena.
For all of us today, the battle is in our hands. The road ahead is not altogether a smoth one. There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going…I know you are asking today. “How long will it take?” I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again… because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
Be jubilant my feet, for our God is marching on.”
The moral genius of our Torah is affirming the deep belief that the story of history is a story of our God marching on.
Whenever the Pharaohs of our world harden their heart, we are called to soften ours.
Whenever we feel shortness of breath and call out ‘mi’ma’akim karaticha Adonai’, from out of the depths I call to God (Ps. 130:1), God answers us with the expansiveness of a moral vision of love.
Whenever we feel small, we are called to be great.
Let us be great and share with our world an ‘ahavah rabbah’, a great love.
I would like to close with a prayer written by Dr. Tarece Johnson, an African American convert to Judaism. She has authored a volume of prayers and meditations aply called ‘Ahavah’, ‘Love’. May her words, and the words of Dr. King and the words of the Torah carry us through.
“May we all put aside our differencesand work togetherin love and peaceto make a difference in the world.May we never forgetthe slavery and persecutionof our people.We share a common storyand a powerful legacyof strength and perseverance.Regardless of our differencesand similaritiesmay we continue tocollaboratively and positivelyimpact change.We can ALL makethe world a better place inPeaceJoyandLove.”