On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Reaching the Promised Land

This week, as we move into the book of Exodus, we transition from learning about Joseph to learning about another Jewish leader: Moses. Rabbi Rick Jacobs wonders what it means to be a Jewish leader, and how leaders like Joseph, Moses, and others can inspire us to lead and serve in our communities today.

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[URJ Into] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on a weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Va-eira. He wonders how we encounter leadership and ensure that the leadership we all may be called to is used to fight bigotry and hate, to respond with courage and solidarity.

[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Va-eira, the second parashah of the Book of Exodus. And we're in the midst of the most powerful and transformational master story of the Jewish people, the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

I'm going to start with just a little detail about American Jewish history that I just find stunning. And I ask you, did you know that in this great country-- again, some people listening to the podcast are from Canada, some from other places around the globe. But this is an American story, a painful American story. But did you know that there used to be something called a segregated Bible?

It sounds-- I know-- to me like a contradiction in terms, but before the civil rights movement in the United States, Southern courts had two Bibles. Why did they need two Bibles? One Bible was used to swear in white witnesses, and the other Bible they used to swear in all black witnesses in whatever legal proceedings.

Now, just think about that little detail. And it wasn't just one town had segregated Bibles. This was a phenomenon across the South.

So imagine people who think of themselves as Bible-following, God-fearing, and they could understand that there was a separate Bible for white people from black people. I mean, I just-- the thought of this just debilitates me. How in the world could they imagine a god-- how could they imagine the story of the Exodus as being a story of fighting for the human dignity and rights of only some of God's children?

But I tell you this story because we in this podcast focus our attention on the Torah, not the Torah that some people follow, but the Torah as we understand it. And we've come a long way since segregated Bibles, but we have not reached a promised land. So today, I'd really like to think about the larger Exodus narrative and think about the life and teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So on April 7, 1957, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a 28-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., began his sermon with these words. "I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together, a story that has long since been stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness and finally, to the promised land. It's a beautiful story," Dr. King said. "This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom."

Now, think of that frame that Dr. King used not once on that day for his Sunday sermon. That was a backbone for so much of his teaching and preaching-- and again, he didn't have a black Bible or a white Bible. He was preaching the Bible.

So let's just think-- again, this is a time when the United States thinks very intensely and across the nation about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And boy, today, thinking about the tensions and the racial kind of explosions that we're seeing in our country and the racism that is still so ever present, the legacy and the teachings could not be more important today than it was in the day when Dr. King actually walked and talked and preached.

So it turns out that Moses-- remember, in the opening chapters of Exodus, Moses is singled out for leadership by God. And when we read this story-- and we read some of it last week, and some of it we read this week. Moses is not singled out because he's a very polished speaker. We know, of course, he had some kind of speech impediment.

But he is a leader who is guided by conscience. He cannot avoid pursuing justice. He does it when he sees a kinsman in need, being beaten by a taskmaster. He sees it when a shepherdess is being harassed by the well.

He is somebody who is guided by moral clarity and moral action. That is our Moses. And I can't help but think of Moses and then think of how Dr. King came into his full leadership.

So Dr. King was actually not born into his role as the leader of the civil rights movement. He was fresh out of seminary. He had a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University.

He had recently married Coretta Scott, and he was in his first pulpit at the age of 26 in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which I mentioned a moment ago. He was just settling into a life of being a pastor, of giving sermons and counseling people and helping people through sadness and through joy, and he loved that work.

And then the leaders of the black community came to Dr. King and asked him to lead the boycott of the Montgomery buses because of their discriminatory policies. And Dr. King said, no, I'm not your guy. I'm really not that person. I'm not up to the task. You should go ask somebody else.

Well, remember, that's also what Moses said when God called. God said, I want you to lead. Moses says, no, I'm not that person. You go find somebody else.

But it turns out the leaders with Dr. King were also insistent, and he ultimately came into a leadership role there. And then his leadership grew to be the leader of our civil rights movement, not only then, but to this day.

So Moses and Martin both hesitated at first. They did so out of their humility, out of the recognition that this was an awesome calling and task, and then they ultimately both accepted their leadership role.

When we think about the work today, I'm always just remembering this great story that's told that during the Second World War. A Southern matron calls up the local army base and says, we would be honored, she tells the sergeant who takes her call, to accommodate five soldiers at our Thanksgiving dinner. Well, that's very gracious of you, ma'am, the sergeant answers. And then she says, but just make sure they're not Jews. I understand, ma'am.

Well, Thanksgiving afternoon, the woman answers the front doorbell and is horrified to find five black soldiers standing in the doorway. We're here for Thanksgiving dinner, ma'am, one of the soldiers says. But your sergeant has made a terrible mistake, the woman says. Oh, no, ma'am, the soldier answers. Sergeant Greenberg never makes mistakes.

Well, the story is a story that prejudice, obviously, is not just in one area. And I'm not in any way-- just hear me loudly and clearly-- making an equivalence between the experience of Jews in history and the experience of African-Americans in America. But I do think we're at a moment-- and I was at a rally this past week in New York where we stood up loudly and clearly against anti-Semitism and its incredible upsurge, which is so distressing.

And I was very moved by the leaders of the African-American community there, the Protestants, the leader of the Catholic Church here in New York, and the Muslim-- I was just lifted by the people who understood that hate and bigotry and racism have some commonality, some deeper commonality. It's not to say that our experiences are identical. They are not, but I love this story because it just reminds all of us that hate is persistent and bigotry and racism are not easily extirpated from our consciousness.

And when we think about how do we today address some of these issues-- and I know some people think of Dr. King's holiday on the Monday of the Dr. King weekend. Think of it sometimes as a day off from school or maybe federal holiday, or maybe it's a time for sales at stores.

But it really feels like this is a time for us to understand the deep faith roots of Dr. King's ministry, his leadership of social justice, his deep friendship with the Jewish community. The year he was murdered, he was planning to go to Passover Seder at Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's home. They were deeply friendly.

And I think of a time when their rabbinic assembly welcomed Dr. King to their gathering. And he arrived at the gathering, and the rabbis sang passionately "We Shall Overcome" in Hebrew, Anu Nitgaber. So there is such a common story.

I'm also very aware that some of the stories we tell have a little bit of mythology intertwined with some of the historical facts, but it's true to this day that the coalition of those who will stand against racism and bigotry in all of its forms is a large and a growing coalition of the faithful. And to me, those narratives of the Exodus in the Book of Exodus remind us that the fight against oppression, the fight against-- in the Bible, it was slavery and the loss of human dignity. That is just, at its base, a religious struggle because God created all of us in God's image.

Perfecting the world, healing the world, repairing the world-- this is the work that Exodus sets out to do. We've been doing it deeply. Others have been doing it deeply. And as our community remembers Dr. King, I hope that it will be a time of recommitment.

So I'll conclude to just remember a couple of years ago, they had the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And a number of religious leaders were invited to speak briefly on the steps of the Lincoln Monument where Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and I was privileged to, again, be one of those people.

We had two minutes, and brilliantly, they turned off the microphone after two minutes. Can you imagine? And I knew they turned it off for me, which I thought was completely appropriate. But then they turned it off for Julian Bond, and I thought, wow, you got one of the icons of the civil rights movement.

Well, what I remembered in my brief words was that before Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, which echoes in all of our hearts and minds to this very day, here's the frame I remembered. Dr. King dreamt that African-Americans would one day reach an American promised land of freedom and equality, and though we've come a long way from that sweltering day of hope and inspiration, we've yet to enter the promised time when every American can taste the milk and honey of this land of unbounded promise.

50 years ago, just before Dr. King addressed the conscience of our troubled nation, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke these words. He said, "When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing I learned was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence."

So friends, today, as we think of Parashat Va-eira, we think of Moses's call to leadership and Martin's call to leadership. We think of our fight against oppression and racism, hatred and bigotry, then and now. We cannot be silent. That would be an affront to our god and to our faith.

So however you're going to commemorate Dr. King's birthday, however you're going to keep the legacy and the work and real urgency of that work alive, I'll leave to you. But let us never fall prey to that lethargy and that silence which basically allows the hate to triumph. I know it's hard work, friends, but it is the biblical call not to Moses or to Martin. That biblical call is to you and me.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat.