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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.

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!!”