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Eternal Values and Green Ink

Rabbi-Stephen_Samuel_Wise

Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise

Today is March 17th, known to most of us as St. Patrick’s Day. It is also our congregant Howard Simka’s birthday – Happy Birthday Howard! For many of us in the orbit of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR], however, March 17th is significant to us  the birthday of one of our esteemed past presidents, Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, z”l. Rabbi Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1921. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise (no relation to Stephen). In 1950, the two institutions merged to become the premier institution for the training of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish communal service workers.

The birthday of Isaac Mayer Wise, appropriately considered to be the “father” of American Reform Judaism, was March 29, 1819, in Bavaria. Because March 17th and March 29th are only ten days apart, HUC-JIR designates a day each year that falls in close proximity to both birthdays as “Founders’ Day.” This year, Founders’ Day was celebrated yesterday, on March 16th. In keeping with his unparalleled wit, Stephen Wise always wrote all his documents in green ink as a nod to St. Patrick, perhaps the more famous of the two (though I suppose that depends on whom you’re talking to). And, as an homage to his teacher Stephen Wise, Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l, the dean of modern Jewish theology, also wrote in green ink. I remember the papers I wrote for Dr. Borowitz that were returned with Dr. Borowitz’s characteristically clear and carefully thought out commentary, all laced in green!

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Isaac Mayer Wise

Since we marked Dr. Borowitz’s first yahrzeit a few weeks ago, this Founders’ Day was dedicated to his memory, and a retrospective of the innovative hermeneutic he formulated in 1948 as “Covenant Theology,” just as the world was coming to grips with what had befallen our people in the War, and the astonishing opportunity that awaited us on the eve of statehood. The two speakers at yesterday’s ceremony were Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR, and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, National Director of Admissions and Recruitment at HUC-JIR. Both are outstanding scholars of Jewish theology, Dr. Sabath having earned her Ph.D. on “Freedom-in-Covenant: The Gifts and Challenges of Eugene B. Borowitz’s Theological Quest.”

Rabbi Ellenson included in his remarks an excerpt from Dr. Borowitz’s 1990 publication, Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility (Wayne State University Press, 1990). In this contentious political climate, particularly amid the battle on Capitol Hill over the Affordable Care Act and/or its replacement, these words seem particularly apt, as Rabbi Ellenson noted. Dr. Borowitz articulated his primary “criterion for measuring the adequacy of a political arrangement.” He wrote:

“Being a Jew who, against the odds, has rather regularly been in synagogues for most of his post-bar-mitzvah life, I have had it drummed into me by repetitive Torah and prophetic readings that a social order is judged by the text cases of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . Or the poor. The Bible believes that we are positively obligated to one another. Hence when people have special needs it is our duty to help them. . . We must not pervert justice for the poor or prevent it from functioning for the stranger, the orphan or the widow. The weak and powerless must not become disenfranchised. But the Bible goes far beyond structural entailments. It prescribes our substantive obligations to others less well-situated or competent. We must plead the case of the widow and the orphan. We must give food and money to the poor. (The nearby poor are our first but not our only responsibility.) We must leave the corner of our fields and what fell in the harvesting for the poor and the stranger who dwells in our gates. We must separate a tithe for the poor. These are not options, warmly recommended to the good-hearted. They are commandments; religious laws of the state in that odd theo-political situation (to borrow and re-direct Buber’s term) which the Bible describes.”

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Rabbi Eugene B Borowitz

I was particularly moved by Dr. Ellenson’s choice of this passage in particular, out of the extraordinary body of writings that Dr. Borowitz bequeathed to us. The reason, in part, was a short, yet stunning statement earlier this week by Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, son of Former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and grandson of our own Former New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, z”l. Mr. Kennedy responded to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s characterization of the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act as “doing an act of mercy.” At this, Congressman Kennedy ripped into the Speaker, saying:

“I was struck last night by a comment that I heard made by Speaker Ryan, where he called this repeal bill ‘an act of mercy.’ With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture.

“The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.

“It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. Defined in purely secular terms, compassionate treatment for those in distress. It is kindness. It is grace. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill.

“This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”

Joe Kennedy is Irish Catholic. No doubt, today he will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We are Jews, and we honor the memories of two of our great teachers who wrote in green ink. But the Torah and the Prophets that we study and cherish are the same. So are the values. So too, are the responsibilities that all of us bear – for each other, and for our country.

In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

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Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

Tzedek U’mishpat – Righteousness and Justice

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At the 1963 March on Washington, left to right: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Walter Reuther and Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

The Prophets of Israel raised their voices in the name of righteousness and justice. In fact these two concepts appear as a word pair numerous times throughout the Prophetic books of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word pair is צדק ומשפט – tzedek u’mishpat.

This week began with our celebration of the birthday of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., surely one of the greatest prophets of our time, or any other. His soaring oratory and his clarion call for צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice – inspired the hearts of all who heard it, and it is a message that continues to resonate around the world. The Jewish alliance with Dr. King was born out of that message that resides in our shared Biblical tradition and historic experiences.

This week will end with the inauguration of a new president, one who made it his obsession to delegitimize President Barack Obama – an obsession motivated by racism and xenophobia. Now he has publicly and brazenly insulted and denigrated one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis, a man who has devoted his life to the cause of צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

It is perhaps fortuitous, perhaps ironic, or perhaps a little of both, that on this coming Shabbat we will begin our reading of the Book of Exodus and the story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt by a cruel and despotic leader. In our Passover Haggadah we read the litany of our troubled history, as we repeat the refrain, “many tyrants have risen against us.” It will be incumbent upon us, out of the foundational narrative of our history as a People, and our more recent history as champions of tzedek u’mishpat, to stand up and speak out to uphold these values in the face of pressure that we can only now anticipate with great alarm.

In this spirit, I offer an extraordinary speech that was given at the March on Washington as a “warm-up,” if you will, to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I have sent it to you in years past, but it is worthwhile for us to listen again. The speech was delivered by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, z”l, the then Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ. He was on the podium alongside Dr. King at the march in his capacity as President of the American Jewish Congress. Read the text and listen to Dr. Prinz. He refers to the experience of Egypt as our spiritual and historic motivation.

The Chutzpah of Abraham

Descent Toward Sodom by Marc Chagall

Descent Toward Sodom by Marc Chagall

הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט: – Shall the Judge of all the Earth not deal justly?

Within our Torah portion this week is one of the most primal utterances of our entire tradition; one that has haunted us since it was first uttered. The implications are manifold.

Abraham finds himself in a confrontation with the Creator of the Universe. In its essence, it is a relatively simple exchange. God is enraged by the despicable behavior of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and thus is determined to wipe them out in an act of horrifying destruction. But Abraham pleads with God to reconsider.

Will You indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty innocent in the city. . . Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and the wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the Earth not deal justly? (Genesis 18.23-25)

The verse gives voice to moments both of pain and of righteous indignation at the injustice in that exists in the world at large, and in our own personal lives – injustice that flies in the face of the notion of a God who rules the world with justice and compassion. Particularly remarkable is the chutzpah, if you will, of Abraham, to challenge the Almighty in this way. But he does it to uphold the very values that we have come to understand to be the bedrock of Jewish teaching. We simply cannot annihilate whole populations of people. It is unjust and immoral.

Perhaps within the context of the events that are unfolding in our country, we would do well to remember the chutzpah of Abraham. The expression “speaking truth to power” sometimes feels overused. But in the face of an agenda that threatens to turn the clock back upon decades of progress that we have made in this country, all of us might benefit from Abraham’s chutzpah. In the coming months and years, we will have to stand up to those who would threaten and curtail our civil and human rights. We will have to do this in our pursuit of justice, as our tradition teaches it to us. Far be it for me to compare our new president to the Judge of all the Earth. L’havdil! (Just the opposite.) It is Abraham in this case whose example is worthy of emulation.

Dreamers in America

Dreamers. Photo by Steve Rhodes CC Flickr.

Dreamers. Photo by Steve Rhodes CC Flickr.

Jacob is on the move. He has had to leave his home, and journey to Haran to live under the protection of his uncle Laban. He is alone. It is night time, and he lies down and falls asleep. Suddenly in a dream, a ladder appears with angels going up and down. In the morning he awakens and realizes, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

In the aftermath of the election that has left many of us stunned and filled with trepidation, we wonder what we can do now to prevent the protections we have enjoyed as Americans from unraveling. Here is one place to begin.

In a 2012 executive order, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, grew up in the United States, and want to give back to society and raise their own families in the only nation they know as home. Now participants in and applicants to DACA are in a vulnerable state. Their names and contact information are now known to the federal government, and if the succeeding administration seeks to deport all undocumented immigrants as it stated repeatedly during the campaign, and has restated in the past few weeks, the DACA program provides a robust list. Urge President Obama to take action to protect DREAMers and ensure our nation lives up to its proud history as a nation of immigrants by submitting your letter of support at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), where you will also find more information and contact number. Urge everyone you know to do the same.

Jacob’s dream was for God’s protection. The dream of all these people is to live in America in peace and security, and create productive lives for themselves and their families.

What is “Pink Shabbat?”

pink-shabbatThis week we turn back to the beginning of the Torah upon the dawn of Creation and the appearance of humanity on Earth. “And God created man and woman in the image of God; male and female, God created them, and God blessed them.”

This is a lovely and poetic account of how we as human beings came to be, and we generally accept it as our particular creation myth, as one among a myriad of other creation myths in different cultures and literary traditions. The account, of course, is relatively simplistic.

Our reality as human beings, of course, is far from simplistic. We recognize the complexities of the evolutionary process, and the potential for human growth. Yet we also recognize that among the complexities of human reality is the potential for things to go wrong. One of the most present for us in our lives today is cancer. A chance mutation of otherwise healthy cells, a random chink in a chain of DNA, and we find ourselves facing a horrifying diagnosis and the prospect of potentially grueling medical treatments as we fight to save ourselves. Yet, with the ever-expanding possibilities of medical science, many of us can and do save ourselves! And sometimes, unfortunately, we can’t. It is a fight that continues for us as individuals, and for our society at large.

This month of October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. One of the chief aims of marking this month is to remind us to get ourselves to our doctors for checkups! The other is to make us aware of the possibilities for treatment and network of support for women, and for men. Breast and ovarian cancer are both diseases that often can be more effectively treated with early detection, and they both can potentially be detected through genetic testing and counseling, in addition to more conventional testing procedures.

We at Union Temple will mark this very critical month with “Pink Shabbat,” on Friday, October 28. Kabbalat Shabbat begins as usual at 6:30PM. Dinner follows at 7:30PM, for which we ask a $10 contribution. Then at 8:30PM, we will hear from Sophia Benshloush, a Brooklyn resident, who will speak to us on behalf of Sharsheret, an outstanding organization that addresses the issues of breast and ovarian cancer particularly as they effect Jewish women and the larger Jewish community. Sophia herself is a survivor, and we are delighted to welcome her to Union Temple.

The Wandering Maggid

Elie-Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

In the communities of Eastern Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and even beyond, there were certain people who would make their way from community to community, weaving stories and teaching lessons. They were itinerant preachers, who, in some cases, rose in stature to become folk heroes. Such a person was called a Maggid. This past Shabbat, not only the Jewish world, but all of humanity, lost a great man with the death of Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, who liked to describe himself as a “wandering Maggid.” Writing on Saturday night in The Forward shortly after Professor Wiesel’s death, Rabbi Professor Michael Beranbaum wrote of this giant:

More than any other human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission not only to remember the past but to transform the future. . . . A wandering Maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: “Remember the Holocaust. Remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.”

There have been many tributes and eulogies since Elie Wiesel’s death on Saturday, both in conventional publications and on social media. I think we would all do well to read as many as we can. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Professor Wiesel personally, though a number of my colleagues did. Yet, I feel as though he spoke to me, and indeed, to each of us, in an extremely personal and searing way. Those of us from Union Temple who went down to Washington together in May of 2006 heard him speak at the rally that he cosponsored with numerous Jewish organizations, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, prominently among them. The rally was in support of the victims of genocide and brutality in Darfur. Professor Wiesel spoke to us calmly, and with dead seriousness. His mission, of course, was “Never Forget,” specifically with regard to the Holocaust. But he then reminded us soberly that “Never Forget” is meaningless unless we made it our business to stand up in the face of the genocide that was happening at that moment, and of all genocides wherever they happened. More than an author, a teacher, indeed, a “wandering Maggid,” he became one of the most tireless and outspoken human rights advocates of the modern era, and he touched the souls of all who ever heard him speak, or read his writing. “I’ve gone everywhere,” he said, “trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn’t. That’s why I am here.” When asked what was the most important commandment in the Bible, he responded, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”

Some years ago I became acquainted with a rabbi from The Netherlands who was a visiting professor for a year at Adelphi University. Both the rabbi and his wife survived the Holocaust as hidden children. They had chillingly similar stories to tell, each having been hidden in a suitcase, and transported to different families. One afternoon I had the pleasure of driving the rabbi home after a conference. When he told me he knew Elie Wiesel quite well, I asked him what Wiesel was really like. I said that Wiesel seemed to me to have a rather depressive affect, and I asked the rabbi if he thought that Wiesel actually had the capacity to live a happy life. He told me that he understood my reaction to Wiesel’s affect, but that Wiesel did, indeed, enjoy great fulfillment from his wife and family, his writing, his teaching, and his work in the world.

In this light, I was particularly struck by a portion of an interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Elie Wiesel a few years ago, after Wiesel took her to Auschwitz. . . .

“You can’t hear Elie’s story without wondering: ‘Can he live through that kind of hate and not become a hater? Can he still be capable of love? Can he find any reason to be grateful?’ When I talk with Elie about these things, he tells me that he has few answers and many, many questions – yet even in his questions I hear hope that the human spirit can survive anything. Anything.”

Of all that Elie Wiesel taught us in his words and in his deeds, perhaps it was his bearing witness to the human capacity to love, and to hope, that was the most important of all. Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Proclaim Liberty . . . That Means North Carolina too!

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land; to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25.10) So states our Torah portion this week, Behar. We know this verse as Jews. For us as Americans, though, this verse is seared into our minds, as it is carved into the Liberty Bell, which we can view in its glass encasement in Philadelphia. In the Torah, the verse occurs within the context of the Jubilee year, in which slaves are freed and lands revert back to their original owners. In America, the meaning is much broader: freedom from religious tyranny, freedom from externally imposed taxation, freedom of intellectual inquiry and development. The Declaration of Independence spoke of all human beings as being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

While this aspiration, born of the Enlightenment, was revolutionary in history, it would seem that all the logical extensions of the principle were not “self-evident.” At the time this verse from Leviticus was carved into the Liberty Bell, slavery still existed in America. Women’s rights were barely recognized and sorely limited. Various religious groups still suffered discrimination and exclusion at the hands of the majority populations of the localities in which they lived. LGBTQ rights? Forget it.

In the long history of humanity, we recognize that our country is still relatively young, and is still experiencing growing pains, frustrating as they are. We have had to evolve in our understanding and recognition of concepts and human realities that never had been recognized before. The argument over the rights of the transgender community is the latest, but certainly not the last frontier of the ongoing struggle to fully realize the aspiration of the liberty that is expressed on the Liberty Bell. At the moment, the spotlight is on the outrageous and unacceptable attempts of the State Legislature to discriminate against transgender individuals. The law that this body passed puts into place a statewide policy that bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex – the sex they were born with. It also prevents cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people, and in this case, particularly “T.” NC Governor McCrory has vowed to uphold this law. This is a heinous act on the part of the NC state house, and must be fought by freedom-loving people all over the country. Similar laws are being crafted in other states as well. There was even one introduced into the Assembly of our very own state of New York, but was defeated. Thankfully our own Governor Cuomo signed a non-discrimination bill into law. But we note with sadness the recent attack upon a transgender individual right in our own backyard of Park Slope. So we have a lot of work to do.

While our Founding Fathers considered “unalienable rights” to be “self-evident,” it is clear that the fine points of what is included in these rights is anything but self-evident. Those of us who are concerned with the fullest realization of this aspiration, however, continue to the struggle with what it must mean for all of us. I am proud of our Reform Movement for its discussion and passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People at the Biennial Convention in Atlanta this past November.

Perhaps the most salient verse for us that is contained within our Torah is back at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, with the creation of human beings B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. “And God created the human in God’s image; male and female, God created them; and God blessed them.” (Genesis 1.27-28) Ultimately this is the source of our “unalienable rights,” and we are all obligated to respect and promote them.

From Schmutz to Soaring Inspiration

martin-luther-king-jrThis week we are reading the portion Tazria in our Torah; at first blush, not very appetizing reading. Most of the portion concerns itself with what we, in less elegant vocabulary, might call schmutz; skin infections, mold on houses, and the like – not one of the more inspirational portions in our literature. On the other hand, perhaps more than any other, this text’s preoccupation with schmutz may represent the most immediate reality that any of us faces in real human existence. How did this schmutz appear in our midst, and how do we remove it so that, hopefully, it doesn’t return? In Ancient Israel, the primary responsibility devolved upon the kohanim – the priests – to control and monitor schmutz. In our own lives and in our own time, it devolves upon us – all of us.

I am struck by the fortuitousness of our reading this portion this year during this first week of April for a poignant reason. Earlier this week, on Monday, we were reminded that it was the anniversary of the assassination of The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee – April 4, 1968. We remember that Dr. King went to Memphis to support a strike by the sanitation workers of that city, who were demanding more equitable pay and working conditions; men who dealt with schmutz, if you will, every day of their lives – but the most important word in the sentence is men. These men were people like all others, and deserved to have someone stand up for them and assert their rights to a living wage. I guess sometimes we might fall into the trap of associating the people with their work. But Dr. King was hell-bent on reminding all of us that sanitation workers were endowed with the same level of human dignity as anyone else, and needed to be recognized and treated as such. And so, Dr. King went to Memphis.

The speech that Dr. King gave that night is one of the gems of American oratory. I have excerpted the text of final segments of it below for a specific reason. We are coming up on our celebration of Passover – our great Festival of Redemption. This Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the first day of the month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar year, and the month of Passover. Though the towering personality of Moses appears nowhere in the Haggadah, he certainly figures prominently in the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt and our redemption from slavery. There can be little doubt that Dr. King, at the core of his being as Baptist preacher, saw himself very much as a “Moses” figure in bringing about redemption for his people in this country, and for oppressed peoples the world over. Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses rehearses the entire narrative of the birth, enslavement, redemption, wandering, and arrival at the bank of the Jordan River, of the People Israel. And then, Moses gazes over to the Promised Land, where he will never go, and dies there in Mo’av. And the people cross over without him. Much of Dr. King’s final speech is reminiscent of Moses’ final soliloquy.

I have often speculated that if Martin Luther King had been Jewish, his Hebrew name would have been Moshe. And so, in the midst of some of the schmutz, if you will, to which we have been subjected during this campaign season, I offer for you some real inspiration in the final words of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King to his people, as he stands with the garbage workers of Memphis. I will begin the transcript with the New Testament’s parable of the Good Samaritan. And for Dr. King we say, zecher tzaddik liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Dr. King. . . .

“You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

“That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

“It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

“And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

“If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

“And they were telling me –. Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

“And so I’m happy, tonight.

“I’m not worried about anything.

“I’m not fearing any man!

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Groggers, Not Guns!

purim-dress-ball

Academy of Music Purim Association, Fancy Dress Ball, March 15, 1881. New York: Mayer, Merkel, & Ottman Lithograph, 1881. Color lithograph. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (206)

We were horrified this morning as we awoke to the news that two blasts had rocked the Belgian capital of Brussels. With dozens of people dead and wounded, we grieve with the Belgian people, with all those visiting who were victimized, and with their families. Only four months after the deadly attacks in Paris, the citizens of the region are still reeling from pillar to post. The sophistication of both these European capitals stands in stark contrast to the wanton violence that has been inflicted upon them. Unfortunately, we in New York are well acquainted with this contrast. So are the people of Israel and throughout the Middle East. So are the people of San Bernadino, and Washington, and cities throughout the world. We have seen the underbelly of human capacity; the potential for evil that exists within human beings.

This Wednesday night and Thursday we in the Jewish community will celebrate one of the most joyous festivals of our year, the Festival of Purim. It is a time of costumes and shpiels, silliness and laughter, eating and drinking – drinking, in fact, to excess (as long as we don’t have to drive!). We should revel in this cathartic release of tension that is, in so many ways, a gift from the architects of Jewish tradition.

This being said, we do acknowledge, however, that our celebration of Purim is in large measure a denial of the very text around which the festival is built – Megillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther. Known popularly as “The Megillah,” the story is in many ways a completely ridiculous fantasy, filled with palace intrigue, absurd stereotypes, and linguistic acrobatics that are designed to tie our tongues. But it is also the story of a cruel Persian governor who hatched a plan to annihilate the Jewish people en masse. And in turn, it is the story of the Jews’ turning the tables, and hanging him on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai the Jew. The Megillah is filled with violence and hatred, men who treat women like chattel, women who use sex to manipulate men, and murderous impulses within all of us.

There have been all too many times, even in recent history, in which the themes of Purim have been played out in real life. Hitler, for instance, banned the Jews from observing Purim. On November 10, 1938, the Nazi journalist Julius Streicher claimed in a speech that just as “the Jew butchered 75,000 Persians” in one night, the same fate would have befallen the German people as the Jews would have instituted a new Purim festival in Germany. Numerous additional massacres were carried out throughout Poland and Germany during the following years by the Nazis on the day of Purim.

More recently, the Dizengoff Center Suicide Bombing in Tel Aviv took place on the eve of Purim (March 4, 1996), killing 13 people.

And sadly, there have been those within our own community who have used this festival as an excuse to unleash the demons within themselves. Witness the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, a Jew originally from Brooklyn, in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron in 1994, upon a mosque filled with men at prayer. He killed 29 souls and wounded 125.

As we all understand, this is never what Purim was meant to be. Purim is meant as a catharsis for us; to yell, and scream, and laugh, and make noise, so that we release the tensions that surround us, both individually and communally. Purim is not a festival that calls us to violence. It is meant as a vehicle through which we can sublimate our frustrations. Haman is the villain of the Megillah. So what does our tradition teach us to do? Eat triangle-shaped pastries filled with jam, in memory of the hat he wore. Blow horns and swing groggers. Go nuts, and enjoy it for a few hours.

And above all, we dare not forget the ethical values of Jewish tradition: kindness, respect, charity, and the pursuit of peace. Remember that after all the goings-on in the Megillah, at the very end we are urged to bring gifts of food to the needy. That is what Judaism teaches, and that is why we celebrate Purim.

And so, even in the midst of such overwhelming sadness and global tension, I encourage us all to celebrate this festival with joy, even as we remember the abiding values of our faith. And I wish one and all a Chag Sameach and a Freiliche Purim.