This week’s Torah portion recalls for us God’s promises that fill the four cups from which we drink each year at the Pesach Seder—v’hotzeiti, “And I will take you out from oppression,” v’hitzalti, and I will deliver you; v’ga-alti, “And I will redeem you,” v’lakachti, “And I will take you as My people,”—and one additional promise that fills the cup we leave untasted, the Cup of Elijah: v’heiveiti, “And I will bring you into the Promised Land” (Ex. 6:6-8),
For our ancestor Reformers, this country was the Promised Land, and for the Reformers who founded PARR (Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis), the West was
the Promised Land—deserts and palm trees and oceans, and in the north, rain in abundance. But we know that California and the other Western states have not lived up to that promise—we know that there is much deliverance and redemption yet to be accomplished.
Our colleagues in the last century, hearing the call of our prophetic movement, thundered from their pulpits in support of labor, marched in Delano with farm workers, went South—or lived in the South—to help free African Americans, marched on draft boards to end the war in Vietnam, smuggled themselves into Moscow and Leningrad and Kiev to give succor to refuseniks—all the while yearning to drink the wine of Elijah’s cup in a toast to a world in which the promises had been
Now it is our turn to lend our voices to the needs of people in these states, to walk the prophets through the halls of the Legislature, to work to protect the stranger from being uprooted from what has become her home, to enable these states to better teach the Torat Chayim to all their students. Like the rabbis who have gone before us, the rabbis taking the lead in this effort tonight, and all of you who have been working on these issues much of your lives, we know that teaching Torah takes a different form in the streets and the halls of power than in our study groups, Hillels and synagogues—Torah may look like a bill in the legislature, or a lobbying effort with state senators, but Torah it is, and as Reform rabbis we have a duty to teach it wherever God calls us to speak—and to act.
Our forebears knew that to work for redemption they had to be bold. In a time when many rabbis and rabbinic students are urged to be careful, we are preaching another message: a prophetic movement must take stands for justice, a prophetic movement must take risks for justice—else we risk forfeiting this title our movement has borne so proudly since our founding. We must study Torah—we need always to study more Torah—but we must also take Torah into the streets with us, hold it proudly aloft as we proclaim: v’zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshe—this is the Torah which Moses and all who followed him have placed in our arms: a Torah of justice, of truth, of compassion. We need to work on these issues— to explore how we can carry the Torah we love so deeply into a world whose people yearn so deeply for its application to their lives.
Four cups sit waiting in this week’s parasha—fill them full of your passion and your wisdom and your strength, so that we can come that much closer to filling Elijah’s Cup, to seeing the promise of this great western land fulfilled.
My fellow klei kodesh—may God fill us all to overflowing in the year to come.
– These remarks were originally delivered at PARR, on January 7, 2012, as part of the “Reform CA” Program –
Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.