My daughter, now 24 years old, worked as a volunteer over the inauguration weekend. She also managed to get herself an invitation to the Inaugural Ball. As she set out for the Ball, she texted me a picture. She looked beautiful in a dress she borrowed from me; it was a hand-me-down from a generous congregant some years ago. In the middle of the evening she texted again; she was having a great time.
The next morning I texted her: "Could you have danced all night... and still have asked for more? Could you have spread your wings and done a thousand things you've never done before?"
She texted back: "What are you talking about?"
Turns out my daughter has never seen My Fair Lady!
She's a millennial, and I am a baby boomer. Each of us has been shaped by the parenting, culture and significant events that occurred when we were young. (She still is young.) She doesn't remember the March on Washington 50 years ago, or the murder of Medgar Evers, or the time before abortion was legal. She doesn't remember Selma or Stonewall. But she knows the stories.
Last week the Torah portion described the beginning of the exodus from Egypt. Right at the climax of the story, just before the final most horrific plague, the story stops, and we are presented with instructions about how to observe Passover and make it an institution for all time. And then, after this "word from our sponsor" (another irrelevant reference for my millennial daughter for whom network television has little resonance), the story continues: the first born of the Egyptians are struck down, and Pharaoh finally lets the people go. Then there is an addendum: "and when in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean?' -- you shall say to him, 'It was with a mighty hand that God brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'" In other words, when your child asks, you should tell the story.
Jews tell the story every year -- through the Torah readings and especially through the Passover seder. And many Jews deepen the story with references to contemporary moments where there is an echo of the Exodus, of the liberation that begins with people crying out, organizing, remembering the lesson of the biblical story: the way things are is not the way things have to be. We encourage questions so our children ask.
At our family seder, we remember the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who gave the opening address at the first national conference on religion and race in 1963, at which he first met Dr. Martin Luther King: "At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. ... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses." And in the middle of our seder, when we chant the Dayenu prayer, the prayer that says we have enough, we stop and talk about what is "lo dayenu" -- what is not enough. We read the words of Dr. King's speech after the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965:
Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. ... Let us be dissatisfied...
My daughter doesn't remember Rabbi Heschel or Dr. King, but she knows the story of liberation that we tell every year, and through it she has internalized the truth of Dr. King's words: "Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
And some day she will tell the story of her being a small part of the second inauguration of President Obama to her children, my grandchildren.