“… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”
Martin Luther King spoke these words 50 years ago, on April 4, 1967 and they sound as if he were commenting on America today.
One year from now, April 4, 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's death. Thanks to the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and The Shalom Center, faith communities across the country will be marking the coming year as an American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.
In his sermon at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. King gave voice to a feeling we know today:
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
Driven by that sense of urgency, I spoke this past Shabbat about Dr. King’s prophetic call 50 years ago, and how we must answer it today. You can read my message below. Excerpts from Dr. King’s speech can be found here.
Wishing you and yours Chag same’ach—
A joyous holiday that brings us renewed courage and strength,
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
* * * * * * * *
This next year is critical for the survival of democracy, for the survival of our world. We have already seen the dramatic destructive tendencies of this administration and Congress. Executive orders. Congressional repeal of basic protections of women, of immigrants, of our environment. We are in for far worse. When that happens, we will be there for each other, a beloved community, a kehilla kedosha, to provide comfort, courage, and confidence in our cause. And together, we will continue to resist. Because we believe in moral bottom lines over corporate bottom lines. Because we believe in lives over profits. Because our Jewish tradition began with the Exodus, a moral revolution of values, a slave revolt against a self-aggrandizing tyrant. And because our Jewish tradition reminds us at this time of year, and year-round, of that moral revolution.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King, and in the spirit of Pesach, I offer three simple ways to bring that moral revolution into our present and shape a future that we can all share in equally.
Speak up. Show up. Vote. Speak up.
You don’t need to be MLK to speak up. The first to speak up in the Exodus story was not Moses. No one whose name we know. Not any one person. It was the cry of the Israelites. The liberation did not begin with Moses, but with the cry of the Hebrews themselves: “They were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God took notice of them.”
The Jewish tradition understands these verses to mean that until the people actually cry out, until they speak about their suffering, until they come together to say “we won’t take it anymore,” nothing changes. The midwives were ready to be leaders, Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam were ready, Pharaoh’s daughter was ready, and Moses himself was ready. But no one could take the Israelites out of Egypt until the people were ready. Each of us has a role to play in the task of liberation; when we lift our voices together, we can crash through all obstacles to justice.
How do you speak up? Write letters. Call elected representatives. Urge family & friends in other states to write and call. Use your own words, don’t just repeat catch-phrases. Look people in the eye. Listen attentively and with curiosity. Connect.
Jewish tradition may involve talking, discussing, asking questions. But in the end, it is through mitzvot, fulfilling our obligations, doing, that we live our Judaism.
"Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action." (Talmud)
The Rabbis all agreed that Jews are called to action.
How do we begin every seder?
“This is the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.
Now we are here — next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.”
There are plenty of ways to show up, and they don’t always demand major sacrifices. Yes to rallies and protests. Yes to town meetings and organizing. And yes to taking care of others’ children so the adults can go to actions. Yes to feeding people who are hungry and inviting people to your seder. No to sitting in front of the tv or the computer all day by yourself! Do one act of resistance every day, no matter how small.
We proclaim the central message of Passover in the Haggadah: “In every generation, each individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.”
Every individual. Not men only. Not adults only. Everyone. It’s about participation in the story. Not just telling it, but being part of it.
If you believe in democracy, you need to participate. Voting is a combination of speaking up and showing up. Register voters. Help with Get Out The Vote. Insist that your kids, your friends, your colleagues votes. Not just every four years. Not just for president. Democracy is built on down-ballot offices.
Democracy can be dismantled when voters don’t pay attention to those elections.
According to The Hill, in the past eight years, Republicans have gained 1000 seats in state legislatures, leading to a growth from “just under 44 percent in 2009 to 56 percent” after the 2016 election. State legislatures have used that power to gerrymander congressional districts, entrenching incumbent House members with unbeatable majorities. If we care about divided politics, the place to start is making House districts less one-sided, and ensuring that members of Congress hear multiple opinions.
Vote in every election you can. Democracy depends on you.
Speak up. Show up. And vote.
Martin Luther King prophetically calls to us from 50 years ago:
“We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”