This week, Rabbi Jacobs discusses Parashat Va-eira. Parashat Va-eira is read during Shabbat Tzedek, right before we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, and it's fitting that this parashah tells the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. What can we learn about social justice from this story? Listen to this episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah to find out.
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Welcome to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he's joined by a special guest, and some weeks he just shares his own perspective. But On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, in episode 103, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Va-eira and he asks how you can strengthen the fabric of our society through holy work, and what you think holy work actually is.
This week we focus our attention on Parashat Va-eira, the second parashah in the Book of Exodus. And every January for the past 2000 years, we Jews have told this story in this very organized weekly set of Parashiyot that we have, of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. It's a story—we know this story. It's a story of freedom. We read of a great leader who spoke truth to power, a person who wouldn't take no for an answer. A person who stood his ground against the cruelty of the ancient pharaoh. And it, yes, it is also about this incredible leader, Martin Luther King Jr. who was just like our teacher Moses.
Each year since 1986 on the third Monday in January, our country has observed a national holiday to honor the teachings and the memory of one of our greatest leaders, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but it was well before 1986 that we Reform Jews have cherished the prophetic leadership of Dr. King. Back in the in the sixties my predecessor Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the president of the then UAHC, now the URJ, Carried a huge Torah scroll when he marched with Dr. King and so many of our teachers. Our rabbis and our courageous leaders of justice in our movement also marched with Dr. King. Our Rabbi Steven S. Wise helped found the NAACP, and Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
You may know but this may be a bit of a statistic: it's also widely believed that between one third and one half of white people participating the Freedom Rides and later in the massive voting registration drive among blacks in Mississippi in 1964 were Jewish, not accidentally. They grew up reading the prophetic teachings of our great sages and teachers and Judaism, and they knew that fighting for justice is just what we are called as people of faith to do.
Martin Luther King has been compared many times to Moses and like Moses, Martin was a courageous leader. And he was willing to speak truth to power, no matter the consequence. Like Moses, Martin wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to freedom and justice for people. Like Moses, Martin came as a man of faith to speak in the name of the most high. Like Moses, Martin's words continue to inspire and guide us long, long after he has been taken from us.
And as we look around our world, the plagues of poverty and violence and injustice—well, they’re still very much with us.
The struggle for economic and racial justice has changed strategies over the years since Dr. King's death in 1968. And yet, we know that we have still not reached that promised land that he dreamt of.
I'm thinking particularly of a sermon that Dr. King gave on April 7th, 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. He was twenty-eight years old and he was struggling with how to be a father and a husband and also a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. They had come to him multiple times and said you have to lead, you have to have your place in the wider struggle for justice. He kept saying I need to be home, I need to be a pastor in my church. But he ultimately heard the wider calling.
But on that particular April Sunday, he said the following words in his sermon. He said, “I'd 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 bondage of Egypt through the wilderness and finally, finally, finally to the Promised Land.”
He said, “It's a beautiful story. This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom.” It's our story, it's a story unfolding and it is our call to join not just in remembering Dr. King, but having some of the courage of his convictions.
I think of my teacher Rabbi Jack Stern, Jr., of blessed memory, who also went down and helped register voters and stand up for justice. And I remember that towards the end of his life he was always tickled that people were so proud of him and said Rabbi Stern, “We love that you were down there as this courageous leader.” Rabbi Stern always wanted to correct the record. He said, you know when I was doing it, the congregation wasn't entirely supportive. And it's important to know that people who stand up for justice aren't always being cheered, and sometimes they pay a very serious price.
I love the great story about the way African Americans and Jews have had similar histories, and it's not to compare. There's no comparison of someone's suffering to someone else's suffering.
But Jews and African-Americans tell a common story. There’s the story of a Southern matron during the Second World War. She called up a local army base and she said, “We would be honored,” she tells the sergeant who takes her call, “to accommodate five soldiers at our Thanksgiving dinner.”
The sergeant says, “That's very gracious of you ma'am.”
And she says, “Yes, and just make sure they are not Jews.”
“Well I understand ma'am.” Well, Thanksgiving afternoon comes and the woman opens the front door and she's horrified to find five black soldiers standing in front of the doorway.
“We're here for the Thanksgiving dinner ma'am,” one of the soldiers says.
“But, but your sergeant has made a terrible mistake,” the woman says.
“Oh no, ma'am,” the soldier answers. “Sergeant Greenberg never makes mistakes.”
And hate can come in lots of forms, and it can undermine the very fabric of our shared society.
And so when one people is the victim of hate and bigotry, all of us are victims. Dr. King knew that. And those who began the civil rights struggle with Dr. King, they knew that as well.
You may know that on the very table in our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. they signed the Voting Rights Act. And it is an example of what holy work is. Holy work is prayer, holy work is study, holy work is raising our voice for justice, and yes, signing legislation that guarantees the sacred right to vote.
I was amazed thinking about Parashat Va-eira, that during segregation in the South, there would be two different Bibles that would be kept in courtrooms. Did you know this? This is just a stunning bit of history. And when an African American was called to testify they would use what they called, and I hesitate to even say this, the colored Bible. And when a white person was testifying, they would take their oath on a different Bible. And I tried to imagine, how could people who love this sacred text that we explore each week in our podcast, that people all over the world have called their faith anchor… how in the world could they—imagine a God who created all people in the image of God—understand how segregation could bring such hate into the very act of holding a Bible?
So we know that we've got some real work to be done, and we look around the world, we look at racial justice, we look at voting rights. We look at the dignity of the poor. We think of our teacher William Barber, the remarkable leader of the moral revivals in North Carolina. And we know that the voice of justice is not a voice we invoke in memory. It's a voice of today. It's a voice of an imperative to shape that world that God describes in the in the teachings that go back to the story of Exodus, that our job as a Jewish people is to create that world in this day, in this moment.
We know that Dr. King's words are so not only quotable, but they are they are themselves prayers. He said, “All life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” And I think of that garment of just binding us all together.
And Rabbi David Saperstein made a very beautiful analogy talking about the place of social justice within all the parts of the work that we do. He said, the core of our insight as Reform Jews is that serious Jewish study inevitably leads to the soup kitchen. That serious prayer, among other things, is a way of preparing to do battle with injustice. That social justice without being grounded in text, without a sense of God's presence, is ephemeral and unsustainable. He then says, the heart of the argument is that there is no such thing as social action Judaism. And get to the single garment: that the thread of social justice is so authentically and intricately woven into the many-colored fabric we call Judaism, that if you seek to pull that thread out, the entire fabric unravels. That the Judaism that results is distorted, is neutered, is rendered aimless.
That, to me, is at the heart of the prophetic mantle that Dr. King carried that, Rabbi Eisendrath carried, and I hope that each one of us can carry.
I was invited just a couple of years back for the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech to commemorate that moment. We were each given just a moment on the same steps where Dr. King gave his words, And offered a few of these words which I would share with you now:
“Fifty years ago,” I said, “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. Fifty 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. Most important thing that 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.’”
And I hope for all of us, as we'll commemorate Dr. King's birthday, that it's not a day for department stores to sell refrigerators or special sales on cars, but it's a day of deep national reflection. Reflection not just on Dr. King's dream, but our dream for this country. Our dream that we will raise up a generation that will see in one another the holiness, the image of God created at the very heart of each and every soul. And that we will judge people by the content of their character.
We have such a challenging road to walk, but I hope that on this particular observance of Dr. King's birthday, that we can as a Jewish community not be nostalgic about the days when the black and the Jewish community—we stood together. We can still stand together. We stand more respectfully in ways that honor the leadership and the integrity of each of our peoples’ experience. But we do so from that same prophetic imperative.
So let our voices ring out. Let's tell the stories of our work in the past, but more important than the past is the present, and is the future. So let's continue to walk and to stand up for justice. Let's build bridges of understanding. Let's make Dr. King's legacy alive with the hope and the possibility of what we do today and tomorrow.
Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.