As many of us ready ourselves to speak on Shabbat Tzedek in light of its proximity to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find this week’s Torah portion a great place to start. I have always been intrigued by this week’s parashah. Here we are, just on the cusp of the climax of one of the greatest stories of the Jewish people. Bo opens with a close-up on God telling Moses that Adonai has hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s miracles can be witnessed by all. The action builds… We pan out on the scene of locusts devouring Egyptian crops. The drama continues… Roaring wind and thunder intensify the hail scene. Then, lights out! Darkness permeates Egypt. All that can be seen is the light of the Israelite camp. Next, a moment of intrigue; the Israelites are ordered to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians. And now, the moment we’ve been waiting for—Moses tells the Israelites of the final plague from God that will result in freedom. We squirm with anticipation. But then, just as the Israelites are about to flee from Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds… Just as they are about to taste freedom for the first time in 430 years… Just as we think we can barely stay in our seats any longer—the action stops. Everything pauses. What’s going on?
On the one hand, it might be that the upcoming action is too significant to merely rush through. The proper observance of the ritual of the Pesach (as Gunther Plaut explains, the “preparation of deliverance”) must be established.
On the other hand, and more significantly for us today, this pause calls attention to the the Torah’s shift in emphasis from the current action to the necessity for memorialization of the deliverance in the future. In Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be a sign upon your hand, and a memorial (zicharon) between your eyes, that Adonai’s teaching may be in your mouth.” Again in Exodus 13:16: “It shall be a sign upon your hand and for frontlets (totafot) between your eyes: for by the strength of God’s arm, Adonai brought us forth from Egypt.”
In these two verses, the word referring to the object that must be placed between the eyes is different — “zicharon” in verse 9 and “totafot” in verse 16. Totafot is often translated as frontlets or bands. Yet, there is room for another translation of totafot if we follow the connection to “hataf” (to preach or to speak). Rashi explains, “Totafot would be an expression denoting ‘speaking’ and corresponds to zicharon because whoever sees them (the tefilin) bound between the eyes will remember the miracle (so they become a zicharon, a reminder) and will speak about it (so that they become totafot, something that causes one to speak about the miracle).”
In every age, we must memorialize the miracle of this radical deliverance and keep it at the center of our vision. This memorial “between our eyes” must get us to speak on behalf of justice in our own day. Memorializing deliverance is different from simply celebrating our freedom. Memorializing deliverance means remembering the cruel oppression of our past, both our physical and spiritual oppression. Yet, owning up to the responsibility of our identity as Jews means not only recognizing the oppression in our own past in Egypt, but understanding that mitzrayim still exists wherever the narrowness of oppression continues to rear its ugly head. And, for many of us, mitzrayim exists in our own cities as racial inequality persists.
Lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson declared on our bimah this past Shabbat:
“All of us are burdened in this nation by our history of racial inequality. We’ve all been compromised, we’ve all been sabotaged, our ability to be a free place has been undermined by this history of racial equality that we haven’t talked about, and I think we need to talk about it…”
At dinner afterward he continued:
“There are zip codes in this city (Chicago) where the majority of children are born into violent households and live in violent neighborhoods, and they go to violent schools, and by the time they are five they have been traumatized by that violence, and we’re not doing anything to respond. We’re responding to our wounded warriors coming back from Afghanistan… because we realize that trauma is a disability we have to treat, but there are thousands of children in this city that are carrying that same disability, and we’re not responding to that. I do think that all of us are implicated by that.”
Pastor Michael Nabors from Second Baptist Church in Evanston called us to action with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
We know that we will not be judged by how well we speak on this Shabbat Tzedek or how well we preach in the wider community on MLK Day, but how we act alongside others when that day has passed. Therefore, I’m grateful for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s meaningful call to action on Tuesday, January 19th: Call-In Day for Sentencing Reform when we will have the opportunity to urge Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123). Let us stand up and speak out with our vision centered on tzedek.
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.