Monthly Archives: January 2016

Martin Luther King Day Speech

“At the first conference of religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1963. “Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the God that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know God, and moreover I will not let Israel go. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but it is far from having been completed.”[1]

Rabbi Heschel, a close friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., knew that freedom and equality did not happen overnight. It would be a long, winding road. At times it would feel as if we were moving backwards rather than forwards, meandering through a dessert of uncertainty. And yet, there was progress being made.

This past summer marked the 50th Anniversary of the Selma marches, in favor of allowing all US citizens of color the access to exercise their constitutional rights to vote, and in defiance of segregationist repression. As we know, these marches would prove to be influential in the government’s passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of these historic marches, the NAACP held the “Journey for Justice” this past summer, a 1002 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC. I was blessed to be one of the thousands of participants. Just like in 1965, reverends, ministers, and rabbis walked hand in hand along activists and people of conscience.

We marched in honor of those who came before us.

We marched with understanding of how powerful our steps could be.

We marched in honor of how far we have come in pursuit of racial justice, and to acknowledge how far we have yet to go.

As a child growing up in New York City, we spoke of slavery, segregation, and lynching and Jim Crow laws. We celebrated in the moral courage of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. But only later would I learn of the racism that exists today.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

On the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, my heart broke open as I walked along route 1 in South Carolina, listening to the stories of my fellow marchers:

The father who described what it was like to “the talk” with his nine-year-old son about what he needed to do to stay safe. “You’re male. You’re black. That’s two strikes against you,” he said.

The Reverend who shared how her 13-year-old son was brutalized by police for riding a bike in the wrong lane, and who ran away from home, fearful that the police would come back and get him.

The mother who had tears in her eyes when she told me of the time her seven-year old daughter was suspended for a week, just for running out of class, away from a bully. “At seven years old, they were treating her like a criminal.” she said.

The bright capable college students who were fearful that the color of their skin might get in the way of their lofty career goals, yet filled with determination to not let it.

In their stories, I heard frustration and anger. I heard fear and uncertainty.

I looked into their eyes and all I could say is “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry that even after wandering through the desert for decades and decades we have not yet reached the promised land of freedom and equality.

I am sorry that it has taken so long for so many of us wake up.

I’m sorry that it has taken so many of us so long be present.

I’m sorry that some of my own people have forgotten the difficult places we have come from, and the Pharaohs we had to overcome to get us here. [2]

In Judaism, we there is a tradition of saying “I’m sorry,” acknowledging that only when we humble ourselves and admit our mistakes can we truly move forward. “Sorry” is a beginning, not an ending.

Rev. Martin Luther King once taught that the Pharaoh’s main technique for maintaining the Israelites’ status as slaves was to turn them against one another. When the slaves were fighting each other, they had no chance of overcoming Pharaoh’s army. It was only when they united together that they were able to leave land of Egypt, march through the parted sea, and towards the promised land.

It is my hope and prayer that we can continue to march together.

And that we will march, head held high like Middle Passage, a 68-year-old disabled veteran who despite having five open-heart surgeries, traveled 1300 miles on a bus from Colorado in order to participate in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, determined to walk every step of the way. Decades earlier he had changed his name to honor the slaves who had been forced to journey through the Middle Passage from Africa to America. He recalled what a blessing it had been to honor their strength and perseverance every time he introduced himself, wrote down his name, or heard someone addressed him.

And yet he lived for the future, calling out to children along the march “We are doing this for you, because you deserve better.” They smiled in appreciation.

Each day Middle proudly held up an American flag, and set the pace for all the marchers who followed him. He looked out for each of us, alerting us to potholes and uneven surfaces on the road.

On the 922nd mile of the journey, sadly, Middle had a heart attack and died.

Just as Middle changed his name in honor of the people who came before him, it is our honor to continue the march in his name, to finish the journey that he could not.

During the three miles when Middle and I walked side by side he told me “I’m glad you’re here. We’re in this together.”

We’re all in this together.

And we will not be done marching until there are no more stories like those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice.

We will not be done marching until trust can be rebuilt between people of color and police.

We will not be done marching until we are sure that every single child, regardless of his religion, ethnic background or the color of his skin is given the same education, the same job opportunities as any other child.

We will not be done marching until we overcome the profound problems of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

We will not be done marching until parents are longer worried about their children’s safety on the streets of Utica.

We will not be done marching until the leadership of the city of Utica, with all of its boards and its mass initiatives are as wonderfully diverse as its population.

We will not be done marching until everyone throughout our cities know that black lives matter. And brown lives matter. And Muslim lives matter. And Jewish lives matter.

We will not be done marching until my friends of color are comfortable driving in to North Utica New Hartford, or anywhere they choose. We will not be done marching until my white friends feel comfortable driving in West Utica.

We are not yet near the promised land, but we are marching every closer.

I have hope because of phenomenal initiatives going on here, from the Johnson Center to the Mohawk Valley Anti-Poverty Initiative, to the NAACP, to the great work of wonderful churches like this one, and the list goes on and on and on.

I have hope because of the presence in this room even despite the snow storm!

 

As a rabbi, I’d like to think I know a little something about prayer, but I learned more about prayer on the march than I could ever have imagined.

About the Selma marches, Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that he had been “praying with his feet.”

Until recently, I believed that Heschel’s words were about action. I thought he meant that he was praying with his feet because he was turning his frustrations and anger into positive, productive action.

Now I think that’s only part of it.

If Heschel had walked alone, I’m not sure his steps would have been the same form of prayer.

Instead, Heschel prayed by being in relationship to others.

He was praying because along the march he heard the stories of his fellow human beings.

He was praying because he marching alongside his friend, Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he spoke about theology and justice.

Martin Luther King Jr spent the occasional Shabbat Friday night dinner at Rabbi Heschel’s home. On occasion he also came over for a Passover Seder.

On Passover, Jews retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During the Seder we are reminded that the story of the Exodus is not one of the past, but one of the present. What happened in Egypt did not happen at one time: it happens all the time, and is our collective responsibility to overcome the Pharaohs around us, and inside of us.

One of the most powerful symbols of the Passover Seder is wine. We drink not one, not two, not three, but four glasses of wine over the source of the Seder.

This wine is a symbol of the promises that God made to people Israel: “I will take you out of Egypt”, “I will save you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you as a nation.” Wine is a symbol of joy for the great strides we have made forward, and hope for the promises that lay before us.

Each time we drink a cup of wine, it is Jewish tradition to offer a prayer, called the Kiddish. The word “kiddish” comes from the Hebrew root קדש, which means “holiness.”

When we raise our cups together, full of gratitude and hope, we transform our space into a holy place, a sanctuary of God. It is holy because of our prayer—but more because of our bond. You see the kiddish prayer is never complete, unless there is someone present to say “Amen.” I believe.

Because we’re in this together.

Tonight I hold in my hand two cups. They are the very cups that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King once drank from. When they drank from these cups, they created a holy space, not just by virtue of the prayers they offered, but because of their shared commitment to creating a world in which all people could be judged not on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, or their religion, but on the content of their character.

Tonight, I would like to call up Reverend Bell to join me in raising a glass of wine.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam borei pri hagafen.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Together let us say:

Amen.

[1] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion and Race” (January 14 1963):  http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/heschel-religion-and-race-speech-text/

[2] Rabbi Michael Adam Latz in his invocation for the DNC summer meeting on August 28, 2015:  http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4549479/invocation

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