The book of Exodus (Shemot – Exodus 1:1-6:1) opens, famously, with a vivid depiction of the Israelites’ oppression at the hands of Pharaoh. By the end of the second chapter, their collective cry reaches a crescendo of sorts – a kind of cosmic “tipping point.” Subsequently, we read, “God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them” (2:24-25)
From a purely literal point of view, we might read the verses above as the awakening of an anthropomorphic God to the cry of a people oppressed. This divine attribute is not unusual in Torah – witness God’s remarks to Abraham before the Sodom and Gomorrah episode: “I will go down and see whether they have acted altogether according to their outcry that has reached me” (Genesis 18:16).
Those less inclined to supernatural literalism might understand this passage as a description of the Godly process by which a people is roused to realize its liberation. Yes, the Exodus story teaches us about the harsh reality of enslavement – and how the spirit of a people can become crushed and beaten down through collective oppression. But Exodus story also ultimately reminds us that a crushed spirit can never be fully broken – that there comes a point by which the collective cry of the oppressed will rouse the divine impulse that makes for freedom.
This is, in short, how liberation movements are created. As history has demonstrated, once this tipping point has been reached, freedom is not merely possible – it is inevitable. This concept was literally revolutionary for its time and remains so today. Indeed, though the Exodus is most certainly a central sacred story for the Jewish people, it important to recognize that it has also been the inspiration for a myriad of liberation movements throughout the centuries.
It is especially noteworthy that we begin reading the book of Exodus on the same weekend that we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – a civil rights leader who placed the Exodus story at the center of the movement he helped to create. In truth, the American civil rights movement represents a profound example of a political/spiritual tipping point: a moment in history in which a people’s collective cry was transformed into very real social and political change. King himself identified this dynamic in his classic essay, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, he has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa, and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.
As Shabbat Shemot and MLK Weekend serendipitously converge, we should be doubly mindful of this truth: the cry of the oppressed does not and should not simply echo off into the night. The urge for freedom will eventually come. At the same time, as we recount these histories we must continue to ask ourselves honestly: where are the collective cries for help in our own day? What will we do to help tip the balance towards justice and liberation?