From Exodus to now, our social responsibilities are still the same


Once upon a time, there arose a new ruler. This new ruler deliberately ignored the accomplishments of the foreigner who had made the country prosper in hard times.  He impugned the loyalty of those who supported the man, who was one of the country’s immigrant ethnic minorities.

He sowed fear among his subjects and stripped the foreigners of their freedom. 

Outwardly, the new ruler exerted great power. But relief from oppression for the strangers emerged, undetected, within the ruler’s own household. His daughter had discovered a baby floating in a basket in the river and wisely guessed the child’s origins. She adopted the baby and raised him as her own. 

Having learned the value and the dignity of freedom, the young man’s first recorded act was defending a fellow outsider from cruelty by killing the slave master.  

You know the story – the young “prince” flees to the desert, where he encounters a bush that is engulfed in fire but is not consumed by the flames. During this powerful experience, the young Moses comes “face to face” with God.

When Moses asks for the identity of the being in the flames, he is told: “I will be what I will be”! The identity of God in this passage is fascinating and tantalizing. But the point of the encounter is not for Moses to dwell on the elusive essence of God. Rather, he is sent on a mission – to free the slaves in Egypt. 

This week, we begin reading the Book of Exodus. In the opening chapters of this second book of the Torah, the spotlight shines clearly on issues of human dignity and social justice. God assures Moses that he will not be alone in his struggle against Pharaoh, as he labors for his people’s freedom; God will be with him throughout the ordeal.

Pharaoh is stubborn; even when pressed hard by plagues, he resists releasing the slaves. He cannot imagine a society in which his own economic well-being is not paramount. 

Jewish tradition emphasizes concern for those who are dependent on those who are more powerful economically. It insists that those who have more must share their blessings with those who have less. Judaism teaches us to organize our lives and our societies around tzedakah, doing justice, the right thing, by our neighbors. Too many of us today have reduced our Jewishness to involvement solely with our ethnic identity, with little regard for our ethical responsibilities to our fellow human beings.

On Jan. 3, many leaders in the Jewish community, including several rabbis, planned to join with our Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Hmong and other neighbors at the Rhode Island State House to remind our state senators, representatives and other elected officials that all of our traditions unite in advocating for the welfare of those in need. We planned to plead for housing, food and medical coverage, for a decent education and for jobs for everyone in our state.   

Without these basic elements of living, people are not really free. People who must constantly worry about finding the minimal basics of life cannot contribute to the strengthening of our communities.

It’s not enough to read a story about a young man who confronted a belligerent dictator thousands of years ago. It’s a story we are called upon to reenact, year after year, for as long as some of us are not totally free.

 If you were able to join in the vigil at the State House, thank you. But the work of creating a society in which everyone, native-born and immigrant alike, can enjoy the blessings of freedom remains a goal toward which we must all strive all year long. I hope we will all work together toward realizing this vision.

WAYNE FRANKLIN is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.