By Rabbi Bill Kuhn
On Friday evening, January 15, 2010 at our 7:30 p.m. Shabbat Service, we will celebrate the national holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. In what has become an annual event at Rodeph Shalom, we will share one of the most meaningful interfaith services of our calendar year as we welcome Reverend Kevin Johnson and the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Reverend Johnson will give the sermon that evening as we also welcome many members of his congregation and his choir. Those of you who have heard him speak and have heard their magnificent choir know what an unforgettable experience this is.
Why should Jews celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday? Why should we devote one of our Shabbat services to such a theme? I believe Jews, especially Reform Jews, can and must identify with the struggles of the African-American experience. One of the most profound lessons of Judaism is that we must learn to understand the pain of others, “for we were slaves in the land of Egypt.” The lesson of the Exodus from Egypt is that we Jews were given our freedom for a purpose: to use our freedom wisely and responsibly and to help other people attain freedom too.
In many ways, Martin Luther King was the Moses of his day. It took incredible courage for both of them to confront the Pharaohs of their own time, to say to the powerful forces, “Let my people go.” Judaism teaches us that we must empathize with those who are in trouble, and that we must work to improve the lives of others. The theme of the story of the Exodus was freedom, but not simply physical freedom from slavery. We were freed for a purpose, to help all people who are oppressed to become free in our own day, to move from darkness to enlightenment, from degradation to salvation.
Judaism demands us to work for social justice for all. This theme runs throughout our history and our tradition, from the Holiness Code of the Book of Leviticus, to the Prophets, to the words of the rabbinic sages, to the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement in our own time. Each of us must understand this ancient Jewish obligation to work to bring about a better world.
When Moses and God finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years on the long path toward freedom. In our country, black human beings were forced into slavery, and only after many years of struggle – the Civil War, Emancipation, and decades of legal battles, did the slaves become free. But we know that theirs was not complete freedom. In fact, they wandered in the wilderness for much more than forty years. It was not until the 1960s when Martin Luther King became, like Moses, God’s co-partner, that real and meaningful change took place, including the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and all the progress that we have made since then.
We still have much work to do. Like Moses, and like Dr. King, we are not yet in the Promised Land. We may peer into it and dream of what it might look like, but we must continue to move forward – hand in hand – toward that sacred goal of a better world for all. The point of studying Moses’ life and Dr. King’s life is not just for a history lesson. We must be inspired by their courage, and each of us must know that we too have the power and the obligation to change this world for the better. Let us pledge that we will work together to bring about that day when all God’s children will live as one.
There must be more than words. We must work together for the sake of peace. There are conflicts waiting to be resolved, and there are children waiting to be tutored and mentored. There are hungry waiting to be fed. There is grieving and suffering waiting to be relieved. There is evil waiting to be conquered. There are hearts waiting to be loved. There is truth waiting to be spoken.