When Vision Replaces Anger

I’ve been thinking about darkness.

In part, that is because there has literally been so much darkness during these last several weeks. Even as January arrives, the nights are still long. We are in the dark far more than the light.

But there has also been a different kind of darkness in the air lately. It’s the darkness that goes along with the disruption of the way we live our lives.

The stock market has got the jitters. Immigrants are corralled into makeshift camps. American foreign policy seems confused. A government shutdown throws people into peril.

And, to be honest, the president can’t stop tweeting. The messages often arrive before the sun has risen. He sits in the dark. He is angry and that scowl of his casts a shadow over our land.

I know I’m not the first to note the president’s behavior. A few weeks ago, The Washington Post described his mood in these words, “Trump was mad – steaming, raging mad.”

The particular circumstance barely matters because, as we have come to know, the president is often angry. That is how he was during the election process when he found ways to insult political opponents. That is pretty much how he has continued to conduct himself in office. One of his employees from as far back as the 1980’s remembers, “the emotional core around which Donald Trump’s personality circles is anger.”

No wonder I’ve been thinking about darkness. It surrounds us.

But it needn’t be so.

Although anger can sometimes motivate us to action, there are other ways to imagine our lives.

I am thinking, for example, about the ways in which various American leaders have moved us to action in the past.

The year is 1984. Ronald Reagan is running for re-election. One of his campaign ads strikes the tone that would lead him back to the White House. The commercial featured images of Americans going to work under a rising sun. The text read, “It’s morning again in America.”

Whether or not you voted for Reagan, you can’t help but feel how he communicated with the country. There was light. There was a sense of purpose and unity.

Much the same holds true for John Kennedy who spoke about a “new frontier” when he ran for president. Kennedy was all about energy and change. He didn’t condemn the country. He rather inspired Americans with his challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

There was darkness in America when Kennedy was president. He himself was assassinated, but the tone of his leadership inclined towards the light.

Which is what can also be said about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whom we celebrate this month with a day devoted to his accomplishments.

Dr. King lived in tumultuous times. Tear gas, bullets, and threats were his reality. But the amazing thing about him as a leader is that he never let anger get the better of him. As dark as it might be around him, Dr. King offered hope.

The night before he died King declared that he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land. What’s more, he promised his followers that, even if he did not get there with them, they would get to the Promised Land.

His very last public words that evening were an inspiration. As dark as the next day would be, King affirmed, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

There was no darkness in Dr. King’s dream.

In fact, that is what makes his most famous public moment so memorable. It was August 28, 1963. Over 250,000 people had assembled in Washington for a huge march on behalf of freedom. A series of speakers had said just about all that could be said regarding the politics of the matter when Dr. King came to the podium.

He didn’t talk about pain or fear. He just led those present and the nation by proclaiming he had a dream. He saw a better world. He saw a transformed world. There would come a time when everyone would be able to say, “Free at last. Free at last, Great God, all mighty. We ae free at last.”

That is leadership. That is vision.

It’s not dark and angry. It’s bright and whole. It’s the kind of “dream” our country needs as 2019 gets underway.

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro has served congregations in Springfield, MA, White Plains, NY, and Toronto.  He is also the editor of Gates of Shabbat: A Guide for Observing Shabbat, published by CCAR Press in 1996.



Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Prophets: A 50th Anniversary Appreciation

The night before his death on April 4, 1968 an exhausted Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Masonic Temple in Memphis. The night was stormy, tornado warnings had been issued, and the crowd was small in the giant hall. “But it doesn’t matter now…because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” King famously declared in a trembling voice, “And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

Martin Luther King, JR. reminded the American people with his unforgettable last words that though a man may die, a dream does not. And it is no happenstance that King was referencing Moses, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Time and again King drew inspiration from the prophets of old.

In his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963) King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns…so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”

In his iconic I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington of the same year King quotes the prophet Amos: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (5:24),” and Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” (40:4-5).

Perhaps his most stirring words about the prophets were spoken by King at an address to the Synagogue Council of America on December 5, 1966:“When silence threatens to take the power of decision out of our hands”, King began, “…one looks into history for the courage to speak even in an unpopular cause. Looming as ethical giants are those extraordinary of men, the Hebrew prophets. They did not believe that conscience is a still, small voice. They believed that conscience thunders or it does not speak at all. They were articulate, passionate, and fearless, attacking injustice and corruption whether the guilty be kings or their own unrepentant people. Without physical protection, scornful of risks evoked by their unpopular messages, they went among the people with no shield other than truth.”

King stirringly concludes: “Today we particularly need the Hebrew prophets because they taught that to love God was to love justice; that each human being has an inescapable obligation to denounce evil where he sees it and to defy a ruler who commands him to break the covenant. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because decent people must be imbued with the courage to speak the truth, to realize that silence may temporarily preserve status or security but to live with a lie is a gross affront to God. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because we need their flaming courage; we need them because the thunder of their fearless voices is the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and clamor of war….”

In a recent interview historian Taylor Branch describes the influence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets (1963) on King, noting, “He became like a driven Old Testament prophet….[King and] all those guys used to carry around Heschel’s book. They really identified with the prophets.” Branch adds that “Heschel’s seminal study of the prophets…gained the eager devotion of King and his fellow pastors.” Many of us are familiar with the iconic picture of Heschel and King marching together in Selma, and Heschel’s remark that “I felt like my feet were praying”.

Fifty years after his untimely death the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspires and challenges us anew. His devotion to prophetic ideals bids us in the Jewish community to rediscover our outspoken biblical forbears and their quest for justice. How can we walk the prophetic path in these troubled times? How can we speak truth to power? How can we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly”? For as Hillel said, “But leave it to Israel; if they are not prophets, yet they are the children of prophets.”

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is director of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia, and serves Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.

Social Justice

A Prayer for Shabbat Tzedek and MLK Weekend in the Face of Renewed Hatred

This Sabbath, Jews around the world will complete the reading of the Book of Genesis, hold the Torah high, and pronounce, “Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek, from strength to strength, may we be strengthened.” This custom directs us in ways beyond the symbolic. We do not merely close a book of Torah and move on. We glean Torah’s lessons, we realign our lives to its call, and we use that strength to sanctify our lives and to heal our world.

In dark times throughout Jewish history, Jews have been sorely tempted to close the book and move on. Many have indeed succumbed to that lure, hiding behind their indistinguishable, outward characteristics and melting into the population. In this day and time, until recently, some believed that civilization had risen above the venomous hatred that plagued the Jewish past.

As anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and homophobia reemerge as the pop-culture of the day, we again face that juncture where some will yield to the temptation to fade quietly into the background. Yet, the parents of the hundreds of preschool children evacuated at Jewish Community Centers this week due to bomb threats cannot silently pretend that their children’s pristine world has not been shattered. The Neo-Nazis marching against Jews in Whitefish, Montana on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, will not be silent about their hatred. Toting guns, they will parade through town ready to confront any and all who flinch.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged each of us not to flinch in the face of hatred. He taught us to work unwaveringly for that prophetic vision, teaching:

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience asks the question, is it right?”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Radio Broadcast, KPFA, Santa Rita CA, January 14, 1968.

As we approach this confluence of the challenge “Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazek;” of the commemoration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr; and the rise in arrogant acts of violence and blatant oppression; let us pray with all our hearts:

Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek!
Give us strength, our God, from the wellspring of our heritage.
Let the Torah gird us, bidding us to stand strong in the face of the promulgation of hate.
In Whitefish, Montana, link our prayers with those from all faiths and backgrounds to replace:
Vulgarity with human dignity
The narrow-minded with the open hearted
Vanity with right
The cowardliness of submission with the creative power of courage
The destruction of hate with the healing source of love.
May this be our prayer
May this be our strength
May this be the blueprint for our deeds.


Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner is Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Vice Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, and serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, NC.  This blog was originally shared by the RAC.

Social Justice Torah

A Full Canteen and a Red Brick Wall

This weekend I will do what so many of us in the rabbinate will do: celebrate and remember the life and work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  For me, MLK weekend (celebrated by Reform Jews as “Shabbat Tzedek”) is a chance to link Dr. King’s message to that of Parashat Bo. Over the course of the weekend I will: be a part of a Religious School Mitzvah Day; pray and work with our community-wide teen program’s day of service, together with teens of all faiths; take part in ribbon cuttings and prayers on Monday at a new homeless shelter and an interfaith Habitat for Humanity start; and call my members of Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform. I am looking forward to it all.

Even as I look forward, I am also looking backward to Sunday and Monday, and thinking a great deal about the texts I learned with colleagues in SEACARR at the annual Kallah. It was held in Charleston, South Carolina, with Dr. Mark Washofsky serving as our convention scholar. During nearly five hours of reading and lively conversation, he took us through Judaism’s texts on “Trolleyology.” We considered the infinite value of all life (M. Sandhedrin 4:5), the responsibility to save oneself (BT Baba Metzia 62b), the three mitzvot whose performance demands the ultimate sacrifice (BT Sanhedrin 74a-b), and others.

That these texts were being studied in Charleston led Dr. Washofsky to begin his teaching with a reflection on how we read, and what we read. We were surrounded by “texts” in our historic downtown hotel: a tall statue to John C. Calhoun in Marion Square; Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church around the corner. What we learn from history is in part determined by what we choose to consider a part of our history. Is it better take down the statues, or not? To fly the flag, or not? Which texts are in, and which are out? Which do we honor, and from which do we learn via negativa?

Our Jewish tradition requires the same curation, as Dr. Washofsky reminded us. Is it “whoever saves a life, saves a world?” Or is it “whoever saves a Jewish life?” Honesty about the provenance of those texts is the better course than papering over our textual history.

Here is the text from Baba Metzia:

Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: “Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,” until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: “‘Your brother should live with you’ (Lev 25:36) – Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”

brickWith that Talmudic thought experiment ringing in my ears, I returned to my hotel room on Sunday evening — a room with an interesting architectural feature. Charleston’s Embassy Suites occupies the 1829 structure which served as The Citadel before the Civil War, and in preparing the building for use as a hotel, exposed brick was left in many rooms (including mine). It became for me yet another “text” in a city so rich with them. My comfortable bed made for a stark and discomfiting contrast to the red bricks laid by slaves, and made for a fitful night’s sleep. Privilege and subjugation in such close quarters. A full canteen, no canteen, and the very same desert to cross.

Ben Petura would have me share the canteen and die alongside my fellow; Akiva would have me drink it all, and live. And while we learned from Dr. Washofsky that we tend not to look to our “Trolleyology Texts” to learn halakhah around social justice issues (we have other texts for those questions, more direct and more persuasive), I can’t help but hear them in a homiletical/aggadic key, in light of the struggle for racial justice in America, and wonder about other options. That the “Black Lives Matter” movement faces push back for asking too much, that Affirmative Action is under attack, that Reparations is not even a part of our national discourse…all of this has me wondering as MLK Weekend approaches: “What am I doing with this canteen, and how can I do my part to slake the thirst of people whose lives matter no less than mine, whose blood is every bit as red?”

My hope is that our Conference and our Movement will continue our renewed engagement with the question of racial justice, this weekend and long beyond. May we never shy away from the hard conversations. And may the texts (both paper-based and brick-and-mortar) of our Jewish and American traditions continue to call us out, and call us to justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

Social Justice Torah

Shabbat Tzedek- Memorializing Deliverance

As many of us ready ourselves to speak on Shabbat Tzedek in light of its proximity to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find this week’s Torah portion a great place to start.  I have always been intrigued by this week’s parashah.  Here we are, just on the cusp of the climax of one of the greatest stories of the Jewish people.  Bo opens with a close-up on God telling Moses that Adonai has hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s miracles can be witnessed by all.  The action builds… We pan out on the scene of locusts devouring Egyptian crops.  The drama continues… Roaring wind and thunder intensify the hail scene.  Then, lights out!  Darkness permeates Egypt.  All that can be seen is the light of the Israelite camp.  Next, a moment of intrigue; the Israelites are ordered to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians.  And now, the moment we’ve been waiting for—Moses tells the Israelites of the final plague from God that will result in freedom.  We squirm with anticipation.  But then, just as the Israelites are about to flee from Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds… Just as they are about to taste freedom for the first time in 430 years… Just as we think we can barely stay in our seats any longer—the action stops.  Everything pauses.  What’s going on?

On the one hand, it might be that the upcoming action is too significant to merely rush through.  The proper observance of the ritual of the Pesach (as Gunther Plaut explains, the “preparation of deliverance”) must be established.

On the other hand, and more significantly for us today, this pause calls attention to the the Torah’s shift in emphasis from the current action to the necessity for memorialization of the deliverance in the future.  In Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be a sign upon your hand, and a memorial (zicharon) between your eyes, that Adonai’s teaching may be in your mouth.”  Again in Exodus 13:16: “It shall be a sign upon your hand and for frontlets (totafot) between your eyes: for by the strength of God’s arm, Adonai brought us forth from Egypt.”

In these two verses, the word referring to the object that must be placed between the eyes is different — “zicharon” in verse 9 and “totafot” in verse 16.  Totafot is often translated as frontlets or bands.  Yet, there is room for another translation of totafot if we follow the connection to “hataf” (to preach or to speak).  Rashi explains, “Totafot would be an expression denoting ‘speaking’ and corresponds to zicharon because whoever sees them (the tefilin) bound between the eyes will remember the miracle (so they become a zicharon, a reminder) and will speak about it (so that they become totafot, something that causes one to speak about the miracle).”

In every age, we must memorialize the miracle of this radical deliverance and keep it at the center of our vision.  This memorial “between our eyes” must get us to speak on behalf of justice in our own day.  Memorializing deliverance is different from simply celebrating our freedom.  Memorializing deliverance means remembering the cruel oppression of our past, both our physical and spiritual oppression. Yet, owning up to the responsibility of our identity as Jews means not only recognizing the oppression in our own past in Egypt, but understanding that mitzrayim still exists wherever the narrowness of oppression continues to rear its ugly head.  And, for many of us, mitzrayim exists in our own cities as racial inequality persists.

Lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson declared on our bimah this past Shabbat:

“All of us are burdened in this nation by our history of racial inequality.  We’ve all been compromised, we’ve all been sabotaged, our ability to be a free place has been undermined by this history of racial equality that we haven’t talked about, and I think we need to talk about it…”

At dinner afterward he continued:

“There are zip codes in this city (Chicago) where the majority of children are born into violent households and live in violent neighborhoods, and they go to violent schools, and by the time they are five they have been traumatized by that violence, and we’re not doing anything to respond.  We’re responding to our wounded warriors coming back from Afghanistan… because we realize that trauma is a disability we have to treat, but there are thousands of children in this city that are carrying that same disability, and we’re not responding to that.  I do think that all of us are implicated by that.” 

Pastor Michael Nabors from Second Baptist Church in Evanston called us to action with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

We know that we will not be judged by how well we speak on this Shabbat Tzedek or how well we preach in the wider community on MLK Day, but how we act alongside others when that day has passed.  Therefore, I’m grateful for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s meaningful call to action on Tuesday, January 19th: Call-In Day for Sentencing Reform when we will have the opportunity to urge Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123).  Let us stand up and speak out with our vision centered on tzedek.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.