Va'era, freedom, and Reverend Martin Luther King
January 18, 2015
Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Va'era. (At least, this is the script from which I spoke. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
God spoke to Moshe saying: go and tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let the Israelites depart from his land. (Exodus 6:10)
This week we move deeper into our people's central story: we were enslaved to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This year, our reading of this holy story falls on the weekend when we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Day.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr -- alav hashalom / peace be upon him -- was a man in the mold of Moses. He worked tirelessly to end the injustice of segregation. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which attracted national attention because television crews captured the brutal police response. He dared to dream of a world redeemed in which the evils of racism would be a thing of the past.
As Jews, we twice a year recount the story of how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt -- during the weekly round of Torah readings, and at the Passover seder. We also thank God for our liberation from slavery in daily prayer and in the Friday night kiddush.
Our liberation is spiritual, not literal. None of us here today were actually slaves in Egypt. And many of you have heard me say before that it doesn't matter to me whether or not that story is historically true. What matters is that it's the story we tell about who we are.
But for Martin Luther King, the story of liberation wasn't about freedom from internal constriction, the "narrow places" in our lives or in our hearts. His ancestors were slaves to plantation owners and overseers in the American South. Not in the mythic mysts of ancient history, but a short few hundred years ago. And the unthinkable injustices of that system which treated Black human beings as subhuman chattel have not yet been wholly rooted-out.
Because stop-and-frisk policies disproportionately target Americans of color -- in New York City, 80% of those pulled over by police are people of color; and of those pulled over, only 8% of Whites are frisked, compared with 85% of Black and Latinos.
Because according to a study done by ProPublica, Black Americans are twenty-one times more likely than white Americans to be shot by police.
Because African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. And the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that in the federal system, Black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than White offenders for the same crimes.
Because one in ten Americans still believes that businesses should be free to refuse service to African Americans... and, for that matter, to Jews. But although Jews have faced discrimination over the millennia, in this nation, today, we enjoy unprecedented acceptance. And those of us who are or appear White experience privilege which is denied to our Black sisters and brothers.
I'll let Ta-Nehisi Coates offer us the overview:
Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.
It's an awful litany, isn't it?
The injustices against which Reverend Martin Luther King worked so tirelessly are not yet behind us. There may no longer be "whites only" signs on buses and water fountains, but racism and inequality persist in a million subtle and systemic ways.
And in the wake of a police officer's killing of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO -- and the ensuing violence we have seen directed at peaceful protestors there and around the country in recent months -- we know that the violence with which Reverend King's peaceful protests were met is also not yet a thing of our nation's past.
In our Torah portion, when God tells Moses to go and tell the Israelites that freedom is coming, they can't hear his message of hope because their hearts have been crushed by bondage. I know that the hearts of many Americans of color have been crushed by the bondage of racism, both hidden and overt. I know that the work to which Reverend Martin Luther King dedicated his life is not complete.
But our tradition has something to say about unfinished labor. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic wisdom, we read the saying of Rabbi Tarfon: it is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. We can't stop trying; we can't give up hope. It was Martin Luther King who wrote that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Aleinu -- it's up to us -- to help to see that vision through.
As we remember Reverend Martin Luther King this weekend, may we be galvanized to follow in his footsteps. To work tirelessly for justice. To overcome systemic racism in our nation -- and, since we who are hearing this today in this shul are white, I want to add: to educate ourselves about the realities our Black sisters and brothers face, and to eradicate racism in ourselves. It's up to us to build a future in which our grandchildren will find tales of early 21st-century American racism as unimaginable as we find our nation's history of slavery.
That's how we can honor the memory of a great man, a tzaddik in his generation. And that's how we can honor the liberation narrative at our people's heart.