By JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton
As a Jew, it is not hard to appreciate how Black Americans have drawn inspiration and motivation from the Exodus story over the course of their 400-year struggle for liberation in this country. The examples are plentiful, from Harriet Tubman being the Moses of her people, to Taylor Branch’s titling his seminal work on the civil rights era Parting the Waters, to the words and imagery so central to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King throughout his career, including, chillingly, his “I Have Seen the Promised Land” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated. The stories we tell ourselves every year as Jews as an integral part of our identity – at Passover and in our Torah reading every Shabbat – are also an integral part of the African-American identity, sustaining the hope of redemption in a community still working toward liberation in our country.
As an American, marking MLK Day this year, it is challenging to transcend the despair and outrage elicited by the events of the last year and the last week. As we honor the moral leadership and challenge of Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent action against grave injustice, it has only been a week since we witnessed a violent insurrection by white supremacists – carrying Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia – incited by the President. Of course, this comes after a year in which we have struggled, not always well, to reckon once again with the incomplete task of realizing the promises of Reconstruction and of the Civil Rights Movement for which Dr. King died, each of which was also set back by violent resistance to dismantling our nation’s caste systems.
As a patriot, it is essential to look forward to next week with hope, about our new President, Joe Biden, and our historic new Vice President, Kamala Harris. She will be our first woman and Indian-American elected to national office, and our first African-American VP. I am struck by the fact that the very marriage of her parents would have been illegal under laws struck down only recently in the long arc of our history. Vice President Harris’ very existence, let alone her historic accomplishment, is a direct carry-over from Dr. King’s generation and the civil rights they fought for.
Acknowledging this historic moment, both as a patriot and a Jew, I am filled with resolve; the resolve that comes from knowing that change is always possible even when it takes generations, or even centuries to achieve. Despite backlashes and setbacks, despite violent attempts to obstruct it and to reject the promise of liberty and equity for all Americans, change has and will continue to happen.
As a Jew who reads the Torah portion every week, as an American patriot grappling with the events of last week, on this MLK weekend I draw from this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, in the Book of Exodus. It is the beginning of the drama of Moses, embracing his role as interlocuter between God and Pharaoh, as our collective story of miracles and the promise of liberation unfolds. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his commentary on this week’s reading:
It is in the darkest night that Israel has its greatest visions. Hope is born at the very edge of the abyss of despair. No logic can give rise to hope; no law of history charts a path from slavery to redemption, exile to return.
Now is a time of both despair and hope. Let us honor the path envisioned by Dr. King by committing ourselves to make this weekend, and the weeks ahead, the beginning of a path to redemption for our nation.
JCRC Executive Director