It is somewhat amazing just how appropriate the Torah portion of the week can be to the events in our lives. As we marked Martin Luther King’s birthday on Monday and celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama as our nation’s 44th President, could there be any words more meaningful that those found in the Torah portions Va’era and Bo.
In Va’era we find, “I am Adonai, I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” And later on, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says Adonai, “Let my people go that they may worship me.” Then on into Parashat Bo, where Pharaoh’s heart is hardened once again and he refused to consent until the terrible tenth plague. Finally Pharaoh let go, our people found freedom. But even thereafter, they were pursued by those, including Pharaoh, who would rather have continued to deny their freedom than to accept it. We as a people, facing our own persecutors, our own enslavers, and those who would enslave others and degrade others, have constantly chanted “Let my people go.”
How appropriate to be reading these Torah portions at a time when our nation marked the 80th birthday of a man who was killed after freedom was granted by those who would have denied it to him. And how fitting to read them, after the inauguration of a man who whose ascent to the Presidency was like the entry into the Promised Land for a long persecuted people!
At an event marking Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, I spoke about the many ties that bind the American Jewish community and the African American community and I noted what Congressman John Lewis, a good friend of Dr. King, said of Dr. King's understanding of the relationship between African Americans and Jews:
· He knew that both peoples were uprooted involuntarily from their homelands.· He knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery.
· He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettoes, victims of segregation.
· He knew that both peoples were subject to laws passed with the particular intent of oppressing them simply because they were Jewish or black.
· He knew that both peoples have been subjected to oppression and genocide on a level unprecedented in history.
I also quoted Dr. King’s statement about Israel made at a gathering of Conservative Rabbis held in honor of the 60th birthday of a friend of Dr. King’s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That night, March 25, 1968, only ten days before his death, he said, speaking of peace in the Middle East:
I think it is necessary to say that what is basic and what is needed in the Middle East is peace. Peace for Israel is one thing. Peace for the Arab side of that world is another thing. Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.
Dr. Martin Luther King was a good friend of the Jewish people around the world and the Jewish community honors that memory highly. Joining my many friends at the NAACP event, co-sponsored by the Black Ministerial Alliance, this year, the excitement was overwhelming. There was a feeling of almost ecstasy for many of the people in attendance as they sang songs of praise to God.
The event was as much a service as a celebration and it began with the singing of the Black National Anthem with a unified community choir of about sixty voices standing before portraits of two men, Dr. Martin Luth King and President Barack Obama. It was a powerful moment.
The first verse of that song is:
Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
How could we not but feel a sense of hope, of dreams realized, the week that we celebrated what would have been the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? How could we not have watched the events on the Capitol Steps and the crowds gathered on the Mall in Washington D.C. without remembering his words uttered on that day in 1963. Speaking of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr King said:
One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
How different Inauguration Day was? A day of joy.
Or what of these words, uttered by Dr. King that day in 1963:
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
It sent shivers down my spine just to witness the events on Tuesday as these words came to mind.
On that very day, America overcame race as a limiting factor to the Presidency. The leader of the Free World is now a man who would not have been free even to vote in many states, much less to become elected, only decades ago. While Barack Obama's ancestors were not themselves American slaves, he represents those whose ancestors were and for them, there could be no happier moment.
The words were said over and over again at the service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, “In MY lifetime.” “In MY lifetime.”
When I go to Washington D.C. on various trips, I always come across tourist items that say, “Future President.” I can only imagine the thought process of a member of a minority race looking at such items in the past. Thinking of their children might they have said, “Do I dare let them dream? Is it a false hope?” Today people of all races can look their children in the eyes and truly believe it when they say, "You can even be President some day." That should bring a tear of pride and joy to every eye.
On Inauguration Day, Republican, Independent, or Democrat, it matters not what political party to which you ascribe your support, America stood proud as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. That feeling was tangible. The joy was tangible. America stood proud, not because of the specific man elected and sworn in, but because of the barriers broken and the fact that we as a people, if only for one moment--in one way, lived up to the highest ideals of our nation, liberty and justice for all.
In the days ahead, we will realize that battles have been won, but the war rages on. Prejudice and discrimination are still there. Justice is hardly a universal truth. Hope does not negate reality. With tears of happiness perhaps in our eyes, or perhaps fear and trepidation of an uncertain future, we will turn again as a nation to the difficulties ahead.
Barack Obama is now the President of the United States of America. No longer is it merely our hope that a man whose face did not look like those of other Presidents be given the chance. Our hope must now be that this man will help us to overcome the challenges that face our nation and our world.Yes, hope, hope and faith a lot of hard work through difficult times ahead.Speaking of having faith in achieving his dream, Dr. King said that day in 1963:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
There is much work to do my friends. We as a nation have taken a great leap forward, but could easily slip and we need to go much further. While on Inauguration Day freedom may have been ringing out for many who had never heard its peal before, there are still many whom it has not reached. There is still racial bias, discrimination based on sexual preference, and religious prejudice and hatred. We are still living in an ethnocentric nation. Many are still, to use Dr. King’s words, living in “poverty amid plenty.” There is still war. There is much work yet to do.
May we never forget that the man who stood before our nation on the Mall in 1963 was a mere 35 years old on that day and had accomplished so much already.
Though like Moses we may feel inept to meet the tasks before us, May we be strong enough to face them.
In the words of President Obama, “Yes, we can.”
We must try.