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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!!”

The Extraordinary Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg_Address_(poster)

An early twentieth century poster showing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln above the words of the Gettysburg address

This week our country marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, to a crowd of about 15,000, at the consecration of a new national cemetery at Gettsyburg. On July 1-3 of that year, forces of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army and the Union Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General George G. Meade, engaged in what would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Some 23,000 Union soldiers were killed (about 1/4 of the Union Army’s forces) and 28,000 Confederate soldiers were killed (more that 1/3 of Lee’s forces). After Lee’s forces retreated, apparently Jefferson Davis was offered a chance to resign, but he refused, thus prolonging the war.

According to the mythology, Lincoln wrote the address on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg. In actuality, Lincoln, who was not the main speaker on the program, wrote most of the speech before he left the White House, and finished it the night before the speech. Apparently Lincoln was not fond of making extemporaneous speeches, and worked on the remarks for almost two weeks.

Aside from the eloquence of the speech itself, what scholars point to as most noteworthy about the content is that Lincoln did not refer to the Constitution, but rather to the Declaration of Independence, as the statement of our national aspiration as Americans – the belief articulated by our Founding Fathers in the fundamental equality of all human beings. We remember, of course, that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation some ten months earlier, in January of 1863.

While the issue of legalized slavery was settled at that point, the reverberations of oppression and racial inequality continue to plague us to this day. Fully 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver perhaps the most soaring oratory this country has heard since the Gettysburg Address. Now, 50 years after Dr. King’s speech, and the March On Washington, we still struggle as a nation with the demons of racism and inequality, economic and social disparity. It is important for us to mark milestones like these, not only to remind ourselves of the aspirations behind them, but also to refocus on the work that still lies before us in order to realize those aspirations.

One of the things we Americans seem to need from whoever our president may be at any given time, is that he (she) possess the ability to move and inspire us to be better than we are, and to live up to our potential as a nation. A handful of our presidents actually have possessed the gift and ability to do that. But perhaps none has ever duplicated the extraordinary poetry of Abraham Lincoln. And so, now fully 150 years later, we remain in awe of the majesty and profundity of this 272-word masterpiece. . .

”Four

A Bond Born of Bondage

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Leaders of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress is standing behind the two chairs and speaking to Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee. See end of post for all identities and affiliations. Copyright: Unknown or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

 

Our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains the text that serves as the beginning of “Maggid” (Narration) section of our Passover Haggadah. It instructs us as to how to relate to our children, and to all future generations, our sacred history as a people.

You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5-10)

Our experience of enslavement is the foundation of our ethical mandate as a people. It teaches us to stand up for justice in the world, particularly on behalf of those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Our Biblical story of Egyptian bondage also has been most compelling within the African American experience in America, and it is crystal clear as to why. With this historical background and similarity of experiences, the black and Jewish communities in America have always shared a profound spiritual and social bond.

It is fortuitous that we should be reading this portion during this particular week, as we anticipate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, on August 28th. In September of 1963, segregation was a blight upon our country. But the Civil Rights Movement ultimately defeated this pernicious racial discrimination and separatism, and eventually the so-called “Jim Crow” laws were overturned.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Copyright Unknown? – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 542069.

Though there is much more to say, and we will have an opportunity to do that, perhaps we all would do well to listen to two of the outstanding speeches of that day. As I have mentioned in the past, there was another extremely moving speech delivered that day, just before Dr. King’s, by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, who was given the honor of addressing the crowd in his capacity as the then President of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Prinz came to America from his native Berlin when he was expelled from Germany in 1937. Eventually he became the Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham, first in Newark, and then in Livingston. He was one of ten who served as founding organizers of the March on Washington.
Listen to Dr. Prinz’s speech. I promise you will be well rewarded.

As you know, Rev. Dr. Martin LutherKing delivered one of the most towering pieces of oratory ever recorded, his “I Have a Dream” speech.

[Note: The leader of the March on Washington on the top photos are from left to right: Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; (seated with glasses) Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee; (standing behind the two chairs) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress; (beside Robinson is) A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the demonstration, veteran labor leader who helped to found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); (wearing a bow tie and standing beside Prinz is) Joseph Rauh, Jr, a Washington, DC attorney and civil rights, peace, and union activist; John Lewis, Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and Floyd McKissick, National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.]