Photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath on the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (March, 1965)
This weekend, we remember and commemorate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: civil rights leader, social justice activist, pastor, preacher, husband, father, scholar, orator, dreamer.
This same week, it is no coincidence that the Jewish people begins reading from the book of Exodus (Shemot) in our weekly biblical reading (this is the second book of the Torah). The book of Exodus relates the story of the Jewish people’s struggle for freedom of oppression from slavery in Egypt.
It was a long, hard road for our people to find their way from Egypt to the Promised Land of Israel. A road fraught with disappointment, frustration, setbacks. Yet, on this road, our people, the Jewish people, was born. Our nation found its path toward building a covenantal relationship with God. We discovered some of the greatest eternal truths that still guide us today, thousands of years later.
Many peoples have experienced struggles of slavery, oppression and bondage. Many people have had to walk that same road that our people did so many years ago. As we are all too well aware, the struggles are still not over.
The Jewish people’s story of oppression and redemption strongly resonates with the lessons that Dr. King taught. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke with a prophetic voice echoing those biblical values, morals and ideals. He fought for what was just and right and fair. Many rabbis, ministers, priests and good people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds walked along side him. His message still cries out to us today, in our broken, hurting world.
This evening, we will gather together as a community in a special Erev Shabbat service to commemorate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with words, music, prayer and reflection. We will remind ourselves that this is a moment to both recognize those whose pursuit of justice and freedom paved the path we walk today. We will ask for courage and strength as we journey forward on the road towards redemption and liberation.
Many among us experience both privilege and comfort. Yet our experiences remind us that not all are free. So today we shake ourselves from complacency and affirm we will not be silent, we will not stand idly by, but that together, we will work hand-in-hand in pursuit of justice, freedom and peace, as the Rev. Dr. King,. taught:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Birmingham, Alabama, April 16, 1963).
Dr. King’s words go hand-in-hand with what Jewish tradition teaches:
“In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6)
And so on this weekend, we pray: Help us O God, to see, to hear, and to know the injustices that keep us from redemption, that keep us from being whole, that keep us from being complete. Enable us to hear the voices of others when they tell us how they are oppressed, how they are suffering, how they are in pain. Grant us wisdom and compassion to eradicate the experience of the captive, so that all may experience their God-given right to live in freedom. Give us courage, energy and humility to embrace those among us who we too easily label as “other”. Give us the power to do our part to bring these words to fruition: “Let violence be gone; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.”
For it is you, O God, who commanded us in the book of Deuteronomy:
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
When we all hearken to these words, we know that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) Then each one of us will be able to sit down with all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender in friendship and peace to partake of the bread of life, the bread of freedom. We praise you and thank you, O God, who gives us the courage to work hand-in-hand to bring justice and peace to our world, who blesses us with the gift of friendship that knows no boundaries and for the blessing of food that nourishes our bodies and souls.
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom