Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Chanukah Parshat Vaera 5778

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The Oppressed, the Exodus, and Martin Luther King Day

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770 

The Great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 often used Exodus imagery and language to describe the battle to end racism and discrimination in America. This morning I will try and explain why that language is indeed appropriate.

At the very beginning of our Parsha God tells Moshe why he is going to redeem the Jews.

3. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name The Lord was I not known to them.

  1. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned.
  2. And I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in slavery; and I have remembered my covenant.

The crucial question to understanding God’s motivation is the relationship between verse 4 describing the covenant and verse 5 recording that God has heard the groaning of the Jews.

Rashi reads them as being integrally linked. I responded to the cries of the Jews because of the covenant. The inference is that without the covenant that might not have been the case.

The text however seems to imply that there are two different reasons for redeeming the Jews. Verse 4 begins And I have also established my covenant..  We find similar language used in verse 5 And I have also heard the groaning.  This seems to imply 2 reasons, each with a similar beginning; the word “and” implies that as well. Nearly all of the other commentators read the verse that way as well.

Eben Ezra in the 13 century in Spain authored two different commentaries to Shmot, titling them the long and short commentaries. In both he reads the psukim as detailing two different reasons to redeem the Jews.

In his long commentary he argues that verse 4 provides us with the covenant as one reason and verse 5 informs us that the Jews cried out to God and God heard the cries because the Jews had repented. He assumes that when one cries out to God in prayer this implies repentance as well.

His short commentary is even more striking. There the two reasons are as follows:

  • The covenant
  • Because they cried out to me. But there is no mention of teshuva at all.

According to this the second reason for redeeming a people is because they are being oppressed and crying out in pain.

That point is made explicitly and beautifully in by the Abarbanel in the 15th century in Spain and by the Ohr Hachayim in the 18th century in Morocco.

Abarbanel explains verse 5 And I have also heard the groaning as follows:

I am the judge of the entire earth and in that capacity I must practice righteousness and justice. Thus when I hear the cry of an oppressed nation I must redeem them. The God of the Jews redeems them in verse 4 because of the patriarchal covenant. It is the God of the world in verse 5 who can’t bear to witness the oppression of a people.

The Ohr Hachayim writes that Ani is one of God’s names that connote mercy. God sees the suffering and because He is merciful he redeems the Jews.

In Exodus 2/23 God tells Moshe that the Jews were weary from work and cried out, and their prayers were heard. The Ohr Hachaim argues that they did not pray in the conventional sense. They did not pray for God to redeem them rather they cried out in anguish and pain and God heard that and responded to it. The mere fact that they were suffering moved God to act. To cap it all off, in 3/7-9 he addresses the famous question of why the 400 years in Egypt were cut short and posits that God saw the Jews suffering and took them out early in order to alleviate their suffering.

The Eben Ezra, Abarbanel and Chaim ibn Attar all believed that even without the covenant, the simple fact that the Jews were oppressed and suffering was sufficient reason to redeem them. They recognized that freeing the oppressed is a divine value and remains one of the eternal messages of the exodus.

In his famous I Have a Dream – Address at March on Washington August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C.  MLK said:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. 

Sadly, 50+ years later there is still oppression and suffering in the world. The timeless message of the Exodus and the celebration of Martin Luther King Day remind us that we must hear those voices of suffering and do everything that we can to alleviate it.