May We Reach the Promised Land

Parshat Beshalach through the words of Dr. King

Delivered by Emily Haney-Caron, January 19, 2019

In this week’s Torah portion, we’re pretty much just hanging out in the desert. The Israelites head out of Egypt by way of the wilderness, carrying Joseph’s bones. No worries about getting lost—God is a pillar of cloud and fire to guide the way! It’s not all sunshine and pillars, though, because God on purpose makes the Egyptians come after them. Fortunately (?), I guess, God’s got a plan, and soon all the Egyptians are real dead. The Israelites sing a little ditty about fear and murder, dance a little victory dance, and hit the road. Soon, everyone is super thirsty; the water is not delicious, but God’s got this covered, too. Next, everyone notices they’re pretty hungry, but—and you may sense a theme, here—God takes care of it real quick by making it rain food. The Israelites, however, do NOT sense the theme, and ignore instructions to eat it all that night. Fun surprise in the morning—maggots! Eventually, they get the hang of the rules about the food…just in time to get thirsty again. They get some more water, then a little more fighting, lasting long enough for Moses’ hand to require the strength of three men to keep upright. The Israelites win, Moses makes an altar, and everyone keeps hanging out in the desert.

Like the Israelites, I think it often feels like we find ourselves in the desert. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, he spoke about injustice, and the importance of taking a stand for civil rights for everyone. In the speech’s most famous lines, he noted, “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Since that speech and King’s assassination the next day in 1968, we’ve made some progress through the desert. The Civil Rights Movement won some very hard-fought victories in the direction of equality, and other movements—the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the immigrant rights movement—have emerged to expand the quest for justice to wider and wider coalitions.

But we have not reached the Promised Land. School segregation is worse today than at the time of King’s assassination. Many states have once again made it impossible to vote for a huge swath of Americans, mostly Americans of color. Women make 79 cents for work that would earn a man a dollar, and for women of color, that’s more like 60 cents. Employers can legally fire someone for being gay. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world and one in three black men will go to prison during his lifetime. We murder transgender folks and we keep brown children in cages. We are, still, in the wilderness. And, like the Israelites in this week’s parsha, the Promised Land is nowhere in sight.

I want to have King’s hope that we will get there, but we have a long, long road to travel. As Moses carried Joseph with him out of Egypt, so, too, are we called to pick up the legacy left to us by our forefathers: Dr. King, Claudette Colvin, John Lewis, Andrew Goodman, and many others before and since. Unlike the Israelites, we don’t get orders or clear directions; there is no pillar of fire guiding the way. The direction comes through seeing each other as human beings worthy of liberties and worthy of justice, and taking whatever steps seem like they might lead that way. Neither is victory sudden and miraculous; today, there is no swift defeat of the Egyptians, no shortcut to win the fight. To make the changes we want to see in the world, we each have to show up, every day, over and over and over again, even when it doesn’t seem like we have any chance of winning. But, like the Israelites, we should celebrate the victories. Instead of singing of the downfall of our enemies, may we sing about the uplifting of our fellow humans.

As the Israelites learned through the handy mnemonic device of maggots, you don’t get to take it with you. When we have more than we need, may we each work to identify uses for it—now. For the Israelites, everyone had plenty. For us, we each have some resource—money, time, optimism, strength—that those around us lack. We don’t get to take it with us. How can we use our abundance to make the world a more livable place today?

In this parsha, we also learned that there is always another challenge. If it isn’t the Egyptians, it’s thirst and hunger and Amalek. In my own life, I find this exhausting. I have devoted my career to trying to improve the juvenile justice system and, over the past decade, there have been some huge victories. When I stop to look at the big picture, though, all the battles left to fight can take my breath away. If you add in all the other ways I want to contribute to building a better world, the sense of endless challenges ahead can feel paralyzing. But perhaps some answers to this, too, are in the parsha. First, take time to rest. After fleeing the Egyptians, the Israelites come to Elim, with twelve springs of water and 70 palm trees. They do not pass it by just because they still have a long journey ahead—they stop to rest. We, too, must learn when to move and when to rest. Second, we need each other to prevail. As Moses raised his hands to help Joshua in battle and Aaron and Hur held Moses’ hands when he couldn’t do it anymore, we also must lean on each other. When our strength or resolve or energy fades, we find it again in our families, our friends, our communities.

In addition to taking lessons from the parsha, though, I also want to raise a question—both for the parsha, and for us. How do we know who the good guy is? From the perspective of the parsha, the good guy is God, and the Israelites, because that’s who gets to tell the story—and the person who tells the story is always the good guy. But the “good guy” also does some very troubling things. God makes Pharaoh want to come after the Israelites for the express purpose of killing the Egyptians so everyone will be impressed with God. The Israelites twice celebrate the pretty awful slaughter of their enemies. I think that, in this regard, we should not follow the parsha’s example. We should not take for granted that we are always the good guys. Each of us has an opportunity to examine the ways that we contribute to and are complicit in injustice, the ways that we silently benefit from the oppression of other people. We are not always the good guy; we can each strive to do better.

I want to leave you with the words of Dr. King. “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period … in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

May we rise up. May we continue through the wilderness. May we reach the Promised Land. Shabbat Shalom.