Parashat Yitro and MLK Shabbat
There is a statement that we read in from the Talmud and often recite in our Shabbat worship services which says, “Pray as if everything depends upon God but act as if everything depends upon you.” It is one of my favorite teachings in Judaism. It speaks to me because I know how difficult it is to achieve the dreams we have for a better world by only praying to God or by only actions without calling upon God for the strength and fortitude to eradicate the diseases of the soul which infect us and weaken our will.
People of faith face the challenge that despite our desire to represent the divine will by prayer and good deeds to the world it is often times that we who lay claim to the mantle of God’s Scripture are the ones who fall and even at times fail to see the mountain top where God’s light shines. Dr. King understood this dilemma when he sat inside the jail in Birmingham, Alabama after having been arrested for leading the Montgomery boycott. While in jail he received a letter from various local clergy urging him to tone things down and to take it easy with his efforts to end segregation and discrimination. It was in response to their letter that he wrote his now famous letter from a Birmingham jail.
In these writings, he expressed his sadness that the people of faith and clergy from the south who disappointed him the most because he expected them to rise to the cause and carry the banner of civil rights for African Americans which would, he initially believed, spread throughout the land. Sadly the south was reticent to lead the way and to join his crusade to create a new vision for America.
This letter was about a message to these clergy and to all of us that we the faithful have lessons to learn as we preach the teachings of God to the rest of the country. What lessons did he see as important priorities? He realized that we had to reject the status quo and to appreciate the sufferings of others who have their own stories of servitude and exile. He realized that our mission, if religion was to play a constructive role in the Civil Rights movement, was going to have to step outside of their comfort zone and break the barriers that kept African Americans for so many centuries in bondage. He knew that God wanted to give us a new revelation from Biblical times to engage America in a covenant of justice and righteousness. But it was not going to happen if the ones who spoke of change were not willing to change themselves before they got out in the streets to change the hearts and minds of our nation.
Is it not true that the humans fear is change itself? We thrive on the idea that the way things are is safe and stable even if we cannot morally defend it. For this reason I say that the greatest change in history was the moment at Mt. Sinai when God pronounced Ten Commandments telling the children of Israel that change had arrived. I am sure it was both a liberating moment and fearful one too. God was telling us that leaving slavery was only the beginning. The next step was changing ourselves and accepting a new vision to become a holy people and a light to the nations. In fact the people throughout the Torah were conflicted. Sure they wanted to change the status quo of leaving Egypt. Yet, the Torah tells us several times that when danger appeared the people cried out to God and to Moses to take them back to Egypt. All the laws that would follow in the Torah were about change. If the Israelites wanted to be God’s covenant people then they had to decide if they would accept the responsibility of following the divine law which God handed to Moses and to the people.
Dr. King was all about changing the status quo which made him a controversial man. It doesn’t take one to be a preacher or a rabbi to feel the heat of resistance when we strive to inspire people to make a change knowing it may mean feeling threatened about giving up the way things are. Sadly it takes the kind of ongoing determination to move forward knowing we are going out of our comfort zone. Change requires getting out of the comfort zone. Dr. King spoke not only about changing the hearts of those filled with long time prejudices but of moving the hearts of the good people. He called upon them to get out in front and stand up for the values they privately believed in and demonstrate that commitment to social justice in public. His overall message called upon us to take the risk of being excoriated by the status quo and bypassing their jeers and remarks.
The truth of the matter was that the generation of the Israelites had great difficulty with change as well. This is the reason why they never made it into the Promised Land. It was their children who marched with Joshua to the future of real freedom. That generation died in the desert including Moses himself. I hope that each generation that we see today can get us closer to our own Promised Land in America which is about racial justice and opportunity for all Americans.
Finally, all of us have a narrative to share which defines us. Dr. King taught us to see the narrative of slavery in a new light and to understand that while slavery ended discrimination the plague of hatred had not subsided. American culture opened up and we began to change and to learn about the narrative, the culture and history of the African American community. Yet, the Jewish people and others have their own narratives which included suffering under the yoke of bigotry and hatred. Do we need to do better at understanding and respecting the central stories of our respective cultures if we are going to move forward? My fear is that despite the evident progress America has made in race relations, we retreat into our cocoons and make generalizations about what we erroneously think another group believes about each other and that may be the biggest mistake we could ever make.
Our teenager who spoke tonight is unique because of several narratives she embraces. Moreover there are other people of color who are Jewish throughout the land who share her experience. In Israel there are over a quarter million African Jews who proudly call themselves Jews, Israelis and Ethiopians. In fact last years’ Miss Israel was black. Before we rely upon old stereotypes about ethnic and religious groups and racial groups it is important that we take the time to learn and listen to where we all came from so that we can join hands in where we are going.
In conclusion, a story is told in the Talmud that the rabbis asked long ago, “Why did God create one man at the dawn of Creation?” the answer was so that “no man could say my father is better than yours.” Do we all not have a common story that we are all one person created in the image of God? Jews and African Americans have worked together and there have also been tensions at times. The truth is that we have so much we can learn from each other to discover that there is one common narrative we all can share which is that at different times and place in world history we have known hatred and bigotry. We have known how it feels to be the other. On the other hand we can share a common narrative which is that we have the ability to make life better for us and for others if we can rise above the status quo, step outside of our comfort zones and share each other’s stories.
When that day comes we will have certainly brought light to the world and together be the light to the nations which Dr. King envisioned, lived and died for and why his life is a living Scripture or Torah which we can all study to make a difference in today’s world. The question remains, is the light at the end of the tunnel coming at us or is a light that will usher us towards making Dr. King’s dream a reality for all Americans? Pray as if everything depended upon God. Act as if everything depended upon us