January 19, 2006
Moses and King
Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
This past week, we observed the birthday of a great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to move his people from seeing and believing his great vision to acting, responding and persevering in the face of violent opposition. In this way, King was like Moses in this week's parshah. It is also no coincidence that King couched his historical vision in the story of the Exodus, comparing his people's plight to that of the Israelites in Egypt.
This week we meet Moses, our new leader and adviser. Moses is commanded to go to Egypt, gather the people and demand their freedom from Pharaoh. "And Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the children of Israel. And Aaron told them all of the things that God had said to Moses; and he performed the signs in the eyes of the people. And the nation believed; for they heard that God was remembering them because God saw their plight, and they were humbled and they bowed low" (Exodus 4:29-31).
Nehama Leibowitz, the great modern Torah scholar, calls this "the spiritual height" of the people; they were imbued with "historic awareness."
The language of the verse is so poignant: va'y'amen ha'am (the nation believed). Two unique words appear side by side: va'y'amen, from the root amen, to affirm, witness, believe in; and ha'am, the nation -- no longer a band of brothers, but a group of children, a single family unit. On this day, the nation of Israel is born, as they realize, according to Ibn Ezra, that the "end of the [slavery] spoken to Abraham" is occurring.
Yet, just as quickly as their energy builds, it is crushed by Pharaoh's denial. Pharaoh is a wise dictator, as he understands the manipulation tactic of internal disputes as a way of breaking the spirit of the unity that was felt just a few verses earlier.
King understood this tactic when he spoke to the sanitation workers the night before his assassination. In his famous "I See the Promised Land" speech, he says, "You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt.... He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. ... When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."
Faith and certainty fall into fear and rebellion. It is precisely this pattern that I see as the ultimate problem facing the Israelites in the attempt to free themselves. The words of inspiration, the signs and wonders performed, the quick fix -- these rally the people and bring them together. However, the moment that anything goes wrong, or they face a difficult challenge, the people give up and begin to whine. It is very easy to be persuaded by fanciful language, a powerful message and an easy answer. However, the challenge of true leadership is the ability to guide people through the difficult, dangerous, painful, and sometimes-fatal situations that stand in the way of achieving a moral or spiritual victory. Moses was able to achieve this eventually, but it was not easy.
Today, we again live in challenging, and some would say, dangerous times. How would Moses and King respond to today's reality?
King never cowered in the face of injustice, never bowed to pressure or intimidation. He spoke his mind from his particular religious, ethical and moral perspective.
What might he say about spending billions of dollars on a war of choice, which has turned out to be fought under false pretenses and cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the security of our world? What might he say about the large number of children living in poverty, without access to healthcare and education, basic food and water? What might he say about the genocide in Darfur, happening with the world watching silently? And the global warming that is destroying our planet? AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa?
What would they say? But more importantly: What would they do?
I believe that King would be in the streets, standing with the poor and hungry, with the striking workers fighting for a decent wage, and speaking out for justice, righteousness and peace.
And so must we.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yartzheit we observed this past week, taught us this when he said, "We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of God's living light."
The lesson from the Torah this week is one that applies to all people fighting for freedom, struggling to make change in the world, or simply wanting to live with an active moral compass. Believing in change is easy. Making change happen is not. We all must have the willingness to be inspired, and the courage to turn that inspiration into reality. This is the message of King; this is the message of Moses; and this is the message of God.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves on the executive committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of its social action committee.