God spoke to Moshe saying: go and tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let the Israelites depart from his land. (Exodus 6:10)
This week we move deeper into our people's central story: we were enslaved to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This year, our reading of this holy story falls on the weekend when we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Day.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr -- alav hashalom / peace be upon him -- was a man in the mold of Moses. He worked tirelessly to end the injustice of segregation. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which attracted national attention because television crews captured the brutal police response. He dared to dream of a world redeemed in which the evils of racism would be a thing of the past.
As Jews, we twice a year recount the story of how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt -- during the weekly round of Torah readings, and at the Passover seder. We also thank God for our liberation from slavery in daily prayer and in the Friday night kiddush.
Our liberation is spiritual, not literal. None of us here today were actually slaves in Egypt. And many of you have heard me say before that it doesn't matter to me whether or not that story is historically true. What matters is that it's the story we tell about who we are.
But for Martin Luther King, the story of liberation wasn't about freedom from internal constriction, the "narrow places" in our lives or in our hearts. His ancestors were slaves to plantation owners and overseers in the American South. Not in the mythic mysts of ancient history, but a short few hundred years ago. And the unthinkable injustices of that system which treated Black human beings as subhuman chattel have not yet been wholly rooted-out.