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.
Fifty years ago, two visionary religious leaders from two very different communities, developed a profound friendship. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emerged from two very different cultures and faiths and came together to make history.
Rabbi Heschel's daughter wrote of this friendship in 2006:
The relationship between the two men began in January 1963, and was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes. As King encouraged Heschel's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel's sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.*
Every year, the calendar conspires to reunite these friends: Reverend King's birthday, and Rabbi Heschel's yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) fall within days of each other. I could easily have written this message on the Shabbat of Martin Luther King weekend . . . but I feel that the greater tribute to these two great religious visionaries is paid by writing about them this Shabbat: For the Torah reading for this Shabbat B'Shallah is the long-anticipated, eternally evocative "yitziat mitzrayim" / the exodus from Egypt.
Reverend King witnessed the moment when the British colonial Gold Coast became the independent nation of Ghana. This nation's journey from subjection to independence inspired a sermon in which he concludes:God is working in this world, and at this hour, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism. To break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then we will be in Canaan’s freedom land.
Moses might not get to see Canaan, but his children will see it. He even got to the mountain top enough to see it and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there’s always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in. And it’s there waiting with its milk and honey, and with all of the bountiful beauty that God has in store for His children. Oh, what exceedingly marvelous things God has in store for us. Grant that we will follow Him enough to gain them.**
Every single day, our tradition guides us back to the moment of "yitziyat mitzrayim", of leaving Egypt. We rise daily and chant the highlight of this week's parashah/Torah reading "Shirat HaYam" The Song of the Sea . . . the poetic and passionate paean of praise to God for redeeming our Israelite ancestors, us, from Egyptian bondage. We speak of the exodus from Egypt twice a day when we recite the biblical passages of the "Sh'ma." We sing of the Exodus from Egypt when we sanctify the Sabbath through the chanting of the Kiddush over the wine on Friday evening. That journey was arduous: it took forty years, it took courage to wander through the wilderness, it took vision to keep going forward (and often that vision flagged). We revisit that moment every day, because we need to remind ourselves every day that God loved the descendants of Abraham enough to venture into Egypt and redeem us. It is humbling to consider that the moment of redemption experienced by the Israelites enslaved by Egypt has inspired innumerable peoples in innumerable places and innumerable generations to persevere through tyranny and to patiently, with determination and vision, journey step by step to freedom.
* Praying with their Feet: Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Peacework: Global Thought and Local Action for Nonviolent Social Change, From Issue 371 - December 2006-January 2007** "The Birth of a New Nation", April, 1957.
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.