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VAYECHI 5777 - DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING

VAYECHI 5777

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING

Did you see the Golden Globes awards on Sunday? It was apparent that the wounds of the presidential election are still raw as some of the celebrities engaged in a fit of anti-Trump bashing led by Jimmy Fallon, Hugh Laurie and Meryl Streep. Was this an appropriate forum for such discussion? Do you agree or disagree with what was said?

However you feel, Rabbi Anchelle Perl, in his weekly email, suggests: There is a silver lining we can all agree upon; not a single speech passes the smell test of being considered an ‘Act of Gd’…In other words, they thought they were being so righteous but were they really? He goes on about the whole concept of “an act if Gd”…

Ever notice how insurance companies become ever so religious when not wanting to pay out...‘It’s an Act of Gd’ they proclaim…

This is an old pet peeve of mine. And I have a feeling that Gd may share my gripe…What do you think Gd thinks of this expression, used to describe extraordinary and unpredictable phenomena? I can imagine Him saying, “Hey, everything that happens to you is an ‘act of Gd’!”

Which leads to my next point. Even if we choose to ascribe to Gd unusual and remarkable events, why only the negative ones? I say that we should stop sullying Gd’s reputation…The next time you make a handsome profit in the stock market try to remark, “Wow, an act of Gd!” You wake up in the morning and your inner plumbing is working, you can get out of bed, remember where you left your keys and have a roof over your head, try to comment, “Wow, another act of Gd!”

My feeling is that not everything that happens in this world is an “act of Gd.” Otherwise we would not be beings created in the image of Gd with free-will. There are things that happen because it’s part of Gd’s plan for our lives or for the world. That’s what Joseph meant when he told his brothers who, after father Jacob’s death, prostrated themselves before him essentially begging him not to kill them for selling him earlier into slavery (Gen. 50:20), he told them: “Although you intended me harm, it is as clear as this day that Gd intended it for good, in order to keep many people alive.”

Much of what happens in this world—on the other hand—is a result of exercising our free-will—for good or for bad. When we exercise our free-will for good, although it’s not necessarily an “act of Gd,” it becomes a “Gdly” act that repairs the world and elevates our souls. One of the best examples of this I think of on this special holiday weekend is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am proud as a Jew that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader in my world when I was growing up. You may not believe this but I think I am a better Jew because he lived. He reinforced my Jewish loyalties. You must understand that it was a time when Jews hid the fact that they were Jewish and so Jewish celebrities often changed their names not to seem Jewish—like Dina Shore, Danny Kaye, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Gormet, Jill St. John and Mike Wallace. But Dr. King showed us one should not hide, but be proud of who one is. And that last lesson wasn’t lost on me.

On March 25, 1968, Dr. King was the honored at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention in NY along with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who had marched with Dr. King in Selma of 1965. They worked closely together to challenge clergy all over America to join the struggle for civil rights. Heschel began with these words: “Martin Luther King is a sign that Gd has not forsaken the United States of America. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us…Every Jew must hearken to King’s voice, to share his vision and follow in his way.”

10 days later, on April 4th, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bulletin in Memphis. This majestic and moral voice of America was silenced, but his light has grown ever stronger since.

Here’s some of the things Dr. King taught us: We are all Gd’s children. If we don’t work together, if we don’t care for each other and work for the liberation of all suffering humanity, then we are neither Jews, nor African Americans, nor authentic children of Gd. When it comes to evil, there is no white evil, or Arab evil, or Jewish evil, or Nazi evil. There is only evil, and if we want to fight it, then we have to fight it together, in all its forms. Hate does not remove hate but love does.

Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” King lived by this adage. Many of his advisers told him to focus his attention on the civil rights of the black community. “Stay out of issues like Vietnam, or the economy or speaking up for the embattled State of Israel, as he often did. They’re only distractions and digressions.” But he refused to listen to those voices. For King, humanity is a seamless web; we’re all in it together.  Either we fight evil in every place it rears its ugly head, or it will mutilate us by entering through a different doorway. As King said, “We cannot substitute one tyranny for another. For the black man to be struggling for justice and then turn around and be anti-Semitic is not only a very irrational course, but it is a very immoral course.”

Dr. King’s last pronouncement about Israel was: “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel—and I never mind repeating it—as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done. How desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”

Dr. King spoke similarly, on untold occasions, for the welfare of oppressed Jews behind the Iron Curtain in the USSR. The gratitude we feel, and the lesson implied in his actions, is not lost on future generations of Jews.

Next week we will begin to read the story of Moses. For me, King was a Moses-like figure. Both were remarkably courageous leaders who had the courage to insist on nothing less than liberty and justice for their oppressed people. Both suffered the initial scorn and derision of powerful leaders who despised them and belittled their mission. And both lived to see the leaders of their oppressors forced to concede respect and deference to their noble efforts.

Recently it was announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. There was an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about it today. Harriet Tubman was a former slave who escaped and then returned to the South many times to help slaves find a way to freedom. During the Civil War she was a nurse and a spy for the Union. I once saw a children’s book about Harriet Tubman that spoke of her in such glowing terms, even mentioning that she met the president of the United States—so prominent was this American black hero.

What struck my attention, however, was not so much the praise lavished on her, but that the book didn’t think it was important enough to mention the name of the president she met! Today, we all know the name of Harriet Tubman—the former slave. But how many know about the life of presidents Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan from Tubman’s time? Today, no one knows who they were! But a former slave woman continues to inspire with her simple decency and courage.

It was the same with Moses. Moses inspired the world for thousands of years. Yet the name of the Pharaoh he confronted is unknown because he wasn’t significant enough for the Bible to mention.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s untimely death was not an “act of Gd;” it was an act of evil exercising free-will. But the life that he let was certainly a “Gdly” life. In leading the struggle for civil rights, he opened the eyes of the world that previously refused to see and, in doing so, lit a torch that will blaze in human hearts forever. Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                                1/14/17

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