B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim. “In every generation, a person must view herself/himself as if s/he had gone out of Egypt” (Pesachim 116b). Our sages teach this text to emphasize the need to praise God for the Exodus each and every Passover. At the Seder, we celebrate as if we were actually there and the stories we recount actually happened to us. In a broader sense, we view this text as a call to compassion and action. In each generation, we must think of ourselves as if we had known personally the bitterness of slavery and then the joy of freedom. Knowing the pain of oppression, we are compelled to work for justice, b’chol dor vador, in every generation.
The text took on a deeper layer of meaning for me as I marched with the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice this summer in Aiken County, South Carolina. When I got off the bus at the staging area, holding the Torah scroll we would carry, I was approached by an older African American woman named Linda. “Rabbi,” she said, “Thank you for being with us on this march.” Making conversation, I asked her if this was her first day marching, meaning, had she participated the day before? “Oh Rabbi,” Linda laughed, “I was marching back in the ‘60s!” B’chol dor vador, in every generation we must work for racial justice.
My marching partner for one stretch of the journey was Eugene, an African American man about my age. He was wearing a button that said, “I Am Marching For Civil Rights.” Around the outside of the button, it said, “Washington, D.C. 1963.” His grandfather had been there in DC in 1963 and worn that pin. He had later given the button to Eugene when Eugene was 5 years old. And Eugene wore it that day as we marched again for racial justice. B’chol dor vador.
We were housed overnight at Paine College, a historically black liberal arts college in Augusta, GA. Students were just beginning to arrive back on campus. Nevertheless, one of the college’s theatre troupes heard that the marchers were staying there and, on short notice, prepared a performance for us. They did a dramatic reading of pieces from Langston Hughes, Dr. King, and others, including a haunting 90 second rendition of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” At the end of the performance, one of the college actors explained why they felt compelled to perform: “We know why you’re marching. You’re marching for us.” B’chol dor vador.
Before I left to march, I talked with my young children about why I was going: people are being treated unfairly and unjustly due only to the color of their skin, and we hoped the march would make people pay attention to these things that weren’t right and do something about them. My daughter, age 7, made the connection and said, “Like in Dr. King’s time, right?’ “Yes,” I answered. Then this quizzical look came over her face. “But why didn’t they fix that back then?” she asked. “Why is this still happening now?” She was incredulous that we hadn’t gotten it right yet, that racial justice still needed to be worked on. And that, I told her, was why I was marching. The struggle for racial justice from the past is, unfortunately, still incomplete. That struggle belongs to us now in our day and age:
And so we march with Linda, who had to march once again, this time with the next generation. We march with Eugene, marching in the path trod by his grandfather. We march with the Paine College students marching for their future. The effort of old is our responsibility now. B’chol dor vador, in every generation, we will continue to work for racial justice.
Rabbi David S. Widzer is the rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, NJ. He currently serves as one of the CCAR’s representatives on the Commission on Social Action.