The photograph on the left is of a street sign in Jerusalem. As is the standard in that holy city, every street sign bears the name of the street in Israel's three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Only in the Hebrew does there appear a short explanation of the street name, or a short description of the person for whom the street has been named. In the case of Martin Luther King Street in Jerusalem, the epitaph appears: An American Leader. A warrior for equal rights in the United States.
This past Monday, people all over the United States, and, indeed, people all over the world, came together in celebration and remembrance . . . and appreciated the confluence of . . . President Obama's second inauguration and the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. There is no question that Reverend King would have been bursting with pride had he survived to enjoy the sight of Barak Obama taking the oath of office of President of the United States. The fact that President Obama's hand rested on Reverend King's bible . . . and Abraham Lincoln's bible . . . acknowledged with humility that President Lincoln and Reverend King made it possible for his hand to rest on their bibles.
I think, though, that Reverend King would also have acknowledged that, although we have come a long way from slavery, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. For Reverend King, visionary that he was, looking into the Promised Land in which race will be a non-issue, was also a clear-eyed leader, engaged in the real-world struggles that shackled innocent people of integrity.
For Reverend King, this week's Torah reading, Beshallach, was profoundly resonant: the people may have left slavery behind, but there is a long way to go before we reach the Promised Land. There are milestones along the way: manna and water, civil rights legislation and a black President of the United States, the attack of the Amalekites and the inordinate percentage of people of color living in poverty . . . . We are still wandering.
The Jerusalem street sign standing at the corner of Emek Refa'im and Martin Luther King Street is a banner of tribute to a man of courage who drew inspiration from the text originally written in the Hebrew of the street sign, and the Jerusalem street. That Jerusalem street sign, proclaiming Martin Luther King street, in the city at the heart of the Promised Land, also stands as a warning against complacence: Jewish sovereignty over the State of Israel does not mean that the journey is over. The inequities within Israeli society: economic, ethnic, educational must also be resolved before we can declare that the journey is over.
Parashat Va'et'hanan Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
I have not been alone in my fascination this week with the aftermath of the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates. Yesterday's conference during which the four gentlemen mentioned above each imbibed his favorite American brew was a brilliant move in terms of leadership, of walking the talk, of role-modeling conflict resolution on a human scale and a lot more.
But it was also a very Jewish moment, impressive considering that there weren't actually any Jews at the table!
This past week, we observed the fast of the 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av) which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem centuries apart but on the same date. One rabbinic response to this calamity which appears in the Talmud is an admonishment to Israel: the Temple was destroyed because Israel forgot God's values and principles by indulging in bias and senseless hatred . . . or, in a parallel text, by indulging in libelous and destructive speech.
Some human foibles, apparently, never go away.
This Shabbat we read the very moving passage from Isaiah "Nachamu, nachamu ami" / "be comforted, be comforted My people." The healing process begins after the wounds have been opened up by prejudice and slander.
I don't know if life imitates art . . . but this week, life is imitating Torah.
How does this kind of healing take place? By reversing the forces of hatred and bigotry and replacing them with openness, courage and respect. The New York Times reported on the White House "beer summit", emphasizing that the press was not allowed within earshot of the table under the magnolia tree. But Professor Gates reported on a "pre-summit" exchange that, to my mind, reflects those healing characteristics:
"The two men [Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley] and their families first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours of the White House on Thursday afternoon.
'Nobody knew what to do," Professor Gates said. "So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you.' That broke the awkwardness.'"
Nachamu, nachamu ami . . . that's how it's done.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.