A Conference Between Moses and Pharaoh

In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a speech in Chicago called “Race and Religion” at a national conference of the same name. He opened his speech by remarking that the very first conference on race and religion, long before the Civil Rights Movement, was between none other than Moses and Pharaoh. Rabbi Heschel’s words resonated with much of the audience, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom Heschel would become friends and allies over the course of the Civil Rights Movement.

In “Race and Religion,” Rabbi Heschel quotes from the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the beginning of the Israelite journey from bondage to freedom. As Moses declared to Pharoah, “Thus says Adonai, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh responds, “Who is Adonai that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:1-2). Rabbi Heschel goes on to say that the conference between Moses and Pharaoh remains unresolved. “The exodus began, but is far from being completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a (Black person) to cross certain university campuses.” 57 years later, the exodus is still incomplete.

Our consciousness of racism in this country was heightened after George Floyd was killed by a police officer last May in Minneapolis. As time has passed, however, and our news cycles and social media feeds have moved on, the plague of systemic racism has remained. Last week, the District Attorney of Kenosha, Wisconsin, decided not to charge the officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back on August 23 and left partly paralyzed. Another Black victim of police violence is left without justice. The Kenosha District Attorney announced this during the same week Black organizers in Georgia, led by Stacey Abrams, helped elect the first Black senator of Georgia, Rev. Raphael Warnock of Dr. King’s former church Ebenezer Baptist. It was also the same week mostly white rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol with minimal responses from law enforcement. Through these events, we can see that even as progress is made, there is still so far to go.

As Rabbi Andy taught us last week, however, we can still do our part even though we have a long road ahead of us. One of Rabbi Heschel’s solutions to racism in our country is to cultivate the prophetic voice in each of us. The tradition of the prophecy begins in the Hebrew Bible, where the prophet acts as the intermediary between God and humanity, advocating on behalf of the marginalized and speaking truth to the power of Ancient Israel’s kings. Rabbi Heschel brings the role of the prophet to our moral consciousness, writing that the prophet is intolerant to injustice, wrongdoing, and indifference. Further, Rabbi Heschel urges us to develop a grain of the prophet, morally affected by injustice, in all of us. The exodus narrative provides an example for how we can all be a little bit of a prophet with the origin story of the greatest prophet of our tradition, Moses. Moses shows the power of action when he can’t stand by an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave (Exodus 2:11-12), the importance of humility in leadership when he encounters God in the burning bush (Exodus 3:11-12), and the impact of working collectively when he taps his brother Aaron as his spokesperson (Exodus 4:28-30). Through Moses’s example and Rabbi Heschel’s words, it is within our power to follow in the footsteps of our prophetic tradition and work for justice.

The first conference on race and religion between Moses and Pharaoh found in the Book of Exodus, Rabbi Heschel’s 1963 speech, the momentum of the anti-racist movement in 2020, and the lack of charges in the Jacob Blake shooting are all reminders that our exodus is still incomplete. However, there is no better time to respond to this moral urgency than right now. Rabbi Deena leads an anti-racist book group that meets monthly and there is always room for more participants. We are seeing new displays of Black-Jewish alliances as the two new U.S. Senators of Georgia are Black and Jewish, as are the new leaders of the Senate, Vice President Elect Kamala Harris and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Reverend Raphael Warnock even said that he thinks Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. King are smiling somewhere knowing that he and Jon Ossoff were just elected to the U.S. Senate in Georgia. This Shabbat, just a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I hope we can still hear Rabbi Heschel’s call for racial justice through Moses and Pharaoh’s conference, and renew our efforts to complete the exodus with dignity and justice for all of humanity.