Our heritage teaches that each of us was fashioned in the image of a vast, transcendent power that gave rise to everything in the universe, including us. We humans channel and reflect this power with unique qualities and capabilities to transform the world with devices and technology, as well as innovative ideas and concepts that have advanced human societies in ways that our ancestors could hardly imagine. Each of us possesses unique qualities and gifts to help move this progress forward, while enriching the lives of those around us. Some people not only bless this world during their lifetime, but even after their days on earth are over. We capture this goal for our lives with the Hebrew phrase “Yehey zichrono l’vracha” which means, “May his life be a blessing.” Such is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birth is celebrated this month around the world and whose memory is a blessing to all mankind.
Each of us is empowered to be part of this blessing by picking up the baton and carrying on Dr. King’s heroic struggle against injustice, which he received from Moses and the Jewish prophets who challenged the rich and powerful of their day. As America enters a new uncertain era, with even more uncertain leadership, we would be wise to take seriously the legacy of Dr, King who observed that “There comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right” as well as his famous adage “He who accepts evil without protesting against it, is really cooperating with it.
Such sentiments are precisely what is needed today as many people feel hopeless and discouraged in the face of a new President that does not believe in climate change, reproductive freedom and the dignity of all people, including women. In confronting such power, we should remember that although Dr. Martin Luther King is revered today, in his own lifetime, he faced overwhelming odds and challenges. He was spied upon by the FBI, his life was constantly in danger, and he took great risks in leading a movement, whose future was far from certain. Despite daunting challenges and violent opposition, Dr. King overcame misguided worldly powers to lead a nation out of the wilderness. Like Moses, he himself never reached the Promised Land because we still live in a land where even the deranged can easily get their hands on lethal weapons, but an assassin’s bullet could not silence Dr. King’s message.
Dr. King was supported in his heroic mission to transform our nation by one of the greatest religious figures of American history, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, rabbi, theologian, social activist, ecumenical leader and modern day prophet. Emerging out of the holocaust, which claimed the lives of his family, millions of others, and the world as he knew it, Heschel knew first-hand the dangers of the twin evils of abusive government and the sin of silence. Despite intense opposition from entrenched power and multitudes who feared change, Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King united to provide a powerful, spiritual foundation to the civil rights and anti-war movements that changed forever the way we think of our nation and continues to inspire freedom loving people around the world.
Expressed in poetic language, prophetic insight and intrepid zeal, both King and Heschel brought moral authority and ecumenical fervor to the important struggles of their day. To his critics who told him that he should limit his activities to prayers in the synagogue, Rabbi Heschel responded that when he marched with Dr. King in Selma he felt as if he was “praying with his legs.” He declared that as a Rabbi he was compelled to speak out because indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself, and our silence makes us complicit in evil by providing cover and tacit approval to injustice.
Rabbi Heschel was not simply an “observant” well behaved Jew, who “observed” what was going on in the world. No, he was a “rabbi rouser” channeling Jewish spiritual leaders of the past to “rouse” us from our slumber by fulminating against those who abused their power.
Such moral leadership is needed in America today to counter the threats that lurk in our future. Although many people seem discouraged by what the future may hold, we are heartened by the lessons learned from Standing Rock, where spiritual vision and respect for the sacred, has prevailed over worldly power to protect our planet and achieve justice. By joining forces with freedom-loving people who cherish this planet and all its inhabitants, Jews can help lead the way in defeating nihilism and bringing about a world governed by peace, brotherhood and justice.
In a divided nation, we must also seek to heal the political divide, by working with our new President or anyone else who will stand up to the United Nations against their anti-Israel diatribes and malicious resolutions, and champion Israel, the only Democracy in the Middle East. Dr. King fully supported the State of Israel and castigated its opponents as anti-Semites and liberals and black leaders today should be reminded of this fact.
So let us honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and the legacy of Rabbi Heschel, by uniting with those of all faiths and backgrounds, to further the Jewish role as a light to the nations, as we pray with our legs for a brighter future. In this way, each of us can help make Dr. Martin Luther King’s memory a blessing.