Elul Reflections: The Content of Our Character

On Friday, Rabbi Bill Kuhn taught in his Shabbat d’var Torah:

On Wed., Aug. 28, our nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March On Washington for civil rights for African Americans.  Over a quarter million people from around our country assembled at the Lincoln Memorial, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

It is important for our congregation to take time to think about the importance of this event.  This summer during our Erev Shabbat Services, we have been asking the question “What is relevant about Judaism in our daily lives?”  I believe the March on Washington has a lot of relevance to Judaism, as there are certainly parallels between Judaism and the African-American story in our country.  In fact, I believe Martin Luther King was the Moses of his day.

In our Torah portion this week, “Ki Tavo” in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing the very large crowd of Israelites as he gives his own “I Have a Dream” speech.  All of the Israelite people are gathered together poised to go into the Promised Land, and Moses is speaking to them reminding them of the kind of society they must establish once they reach the Land, which will become the Land of Israel.

Moses had led the people to rise up against Pharaoh, led them out of slavery and on toward the Promised Land.  If you think about the incredible courage it took for Moses to become this kind of leader, you will see many parallels to the leadership of Dr. King.

Moses felt he was God’s co-partner, and that God was helping him each step of the way, as did Dr. King.  And we will also understand what it took for Martin Luther King to stand up to the Pharaohs of his day, to the powerful forces of the institutionalize racism that existed in the states and cities and hamlet throughout the South, as well as many places throughout this country at the time.  And when Dr. King said, “Let my people go,” he knew that God was with him and like Moses, he knew it was the right and the moral thing to do.

Yes, I believe there are many parallels between the Jewish experience and that of the African Americans in this country.  But perhaps the most profound connection is in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, for it is filled with Jewish values.

Of all the words, he spoke that day, among the most powerful were these, “I have a dream that my four 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.”

This remains a dream for far too many people in our nation today.  But what fascinates me is the idea that we should all be judged by the content of our character.  This is the major theme of our Torah portion this week, and one of the major themes of our High Holy Days.

During this month of Elul, the month on the Hebrew calendar leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition teaches us that we should begin to prepare ourselves for the difficult task of the High Holy Days.  And what is the most important task of the High Holy Days?  To judge ourselves – to judge the content of our own character.

And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that each of us has work to do on improving the content of our character.  We live in a world that is imperfect, and that human beings make mistakes.  That is our reality.  But Judaism teaches us that faith in God will help us learn how to live a better and more decent life.  Our sages believed that God will protect us and help us, if we try to reach out to God.

Judaism teaches us that our actions do have consequences, even when those consequences may be beyond our understanding.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century sage said that our actions can be powerful.  “It is in deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to wreck and to ruin, and their ability to derive joy and to bestow it upon others…the deed is the test, the trial, and the risk.  What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense.  An individual’s misdeed can be the beginning of a nation’s disaster.  The sun goes down, but the deeds go on…”  [Abraham Joshua Heschel.  God in Search of Man.  New York. Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955].

Each of our actions have consequences.  It is like dropping a small pebble into a large pond.  The ripples go out, sometimes far beyond our ability to see.  So too with our actions.  If we treat another person with kindness and dignity, the reward may not come back to us immediately or ever.  But somehow, in some small way, we are adding some goodness and peace to the world.

Perhaps Maimonides said it best (the great Medieval Jewish sage).  He described the world as being in perfect balance, as a set of scales.  One good deed, and we can move the scale toward blessing. One transgression, and we can move the scale into the realm of curse.  One deed of one individual may decide the fate of the whole world.

The deeds and the words of Dr. King 50 years ago certainly changed the fate of the world.  And they inspire us still to work for the day when all people will truly be judged by the content of their character.

As we approach these sacred days of awe, let us work to improve the content of our own character, by realizing that the choices we make can truly alter the course of this world.

As Heschel said, “With a sacred deed, we echo God’s suppressed chant…we intone God’s unfinished song.  God depends upon us, and awaits our deeds.”

Delivered Rabbi Bill Kuhn, at Rodeph Shalom, August 23, 2013.

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