Honoring a Legacy

We meet our ancestors on their escape from Egypt in this week’s parashah, B’shallach. We have resolved the encounter between the Israelites and Pharaoh; between a God of the Universe and the God of the Egyptians; between belief in the ineffable, yet unifying, nature of the laws of truth and justice versus the oppression of slavery and service to a human, not the Divine. The agency of Moses “administering the plagues” and the people’s hasty escape sets the stage, dramatically, for that age-old Jewish custom: complaint!

“And when pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were sore afraid; and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord. And they said unto Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, thou hast taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt? Saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians then that we should die in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:10-12).

How soon we forget the battles we fought. Moments after our liberation, miraculously rendered, there is a sense of dread over the hard road ahead to make it to the Promised Land. “The Torah speaks in human language,” the Talmud teaches. Never is that more true than here. The human propensity to pivot quickly from achievement to second-guessing, from exaltation to despair, happens in an instant. Leadership, we see in Moses’ exasperation and in God’s advice to him, requires perseverance and patience that are not always in ample possession in most of us. But one way or another, when a crisis demands leadership, it usually takes just one to inspire us to get the job done.

So God says to Moses, who has just conveyed his people’s complaint, “Why are you complaining to me? Go lift your rod, stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it!” He might even have muttered, “And stop kvetching!” under the Divine Breath. Who knows? It’s certainly possible.

Building a civilization founded on principles of justice and truth and peace requires the long view. Leaving the condition of slavery is just the beginning. There are generations to go before we get there.

In Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history of Martin Luther King, Jr., he details King’s reaction to the landmark legislation of the civil rights movement: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A monumental achievement, no doubt. But also nowhere near the end of the struggle.

The legislation, King argued, advanced the “football of civil rights to about the fifty yard line.” And it was only then that the real discord occurred. “As we move on,” King said, “sometimes we may even fumble the ball but for God’s sake, recover it. And then we will move on down the field.”

Thinking of this rhetorical analogy in the context of the Israelites’ complaint upon leaving Egypt is poignant and instructive. But I am also particularly struck by the quote in the context of the ways in which Rev. King’s legacy is deployed each year on his birthday by varieties of activists who claim his mantle of leadership in the contemporary struggles for justice and freedom. Reading the words of many of my rabbinic colleagues this week, a number of whom are struggling mightily to confront the odious and inexcusably virulent anti-Semitism of Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, leaders of the Women’s March, is one such example of how important it is to recognize that these struggles for freedom are long and complex.

More than fifty years ago, Dr. King was the first to admit that while he didn’t have all the answers, he could readily offer one: that love must always conquer hate. History makes this very clear. Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory’s blatant anti-Semitism and false claim that all national liberation movements are justified except the Jewish national liberation movement—Zionism—are so profoundly wrong and ahistorical as to be laughable. But as Dr. King and others have taught (often through the ultimate sacrifice of their lives): Hate is no laughing matter.

Whichever rabbi among my colleagues grabs the ring and becomes the Chief Rabbi of the Resistance will benefit from the humbling lessons of the Torah and of Dr. King. Oppression and hateful doctrines, whoever espouses them, need and deserve direct and swift condemnation. Period. Even rebuke, the rabbis taught, must be delivered in a compassionate manner. But it must nevertheless be direct. And then, the hard work of building a just society continues.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” Dr. King told an overflow audience on a stormy night in Memphis. It was April 3, 1968, and less than 24 hours before he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Keenly aware of the analogy to Moses, King chose wisely to stand tall, to love fully, and to provide the promise of a hopeful future. He didn’t divide with hate, struggled mightily with his own and others’ demons, to be sure, and died putting forth a vision of openness, acceptance, non-violence and love. And for a man of such remarkable talent, intelligence and energy, it is truly humbling to recognize that in his own life, he only made it to the fifty yard line.

It is one thing to resist. It requires far more patience and tolerance to remain in coalition and loving partnerships that don’t demonize one over another in an effort to pass the necessary laws and legislation. To finish the work, to get the ball all the way down the field and into the end zone—over and over again—that takes teamwork.

At JCP in the coming weeks, we will be continuing to explore these ideas, specifically the ways in which the Jewish community and the African American community can learn together and work together to achieve this shared vision, inherited from our Torah-reading ancestors, to realize the Hebrew prophets’ charge to build a world of justice and peace.

On Wednesday night, January 23, NYU professor of history Hasia Diner will be our guest at JCP, talking about the truly transformative philanthropic work of Sears magnate Julius Rosenwald, who, after meeting Booker T. Washington, committed to spending his entire fortune building more than four thousand schools and colleges for African Americans in the segregated, Jim Crow South. No philanthropist in the recent half century has yet come close to such a commitment to racial justice in the education sphere.

And on Friday, February 8 at our community Shabbat dinner, we will be joined by the co-pastor team of Revs. Gabby and Andrew Wilkes, who are building a new model for the Black Church in Brooklyn. The Revs. Wilkes will worship with us and share their vision for why it is so important for the Black and Jewish communities to remain in alliance with one another in order to get all American citizens to the promised land we so deserve.

I hope that in the spirit of learning, stretching ourselves, and engaging deeply in these urgent matters, our JCP community will continue to grow and amplify our impact for good in the world.

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