A little over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., led an estimated quarter of a million people as they marched on Washington.
A little over 50 years ago, there was a moment that changed American history: Martin Luther King, Jr., led an estimated quarter of a million people as they marched on Washington. As they gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech visualizing a dream of racial equality. As we come together for Shabbat on this weekend devoted to commemorating Dr. King, there are pieces of this day I would like to highlight.
As time has passed and the focus of the day is Dr. King’s iconic speeches, forgotten is the fact that the march unified a multitude of races, genders, and religions. In fact, it was the coalition of middle-class whites, especially ministers, priests, and rabbis participating in the civil rights movement, that in many ways allowed it to gain the necessary attention to pass the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.
A coalition of different races and creeds coming together to create massive social change is a familiar story to our people. It is the story of this morning’s Torah portion, where Jethro, a Midianite priest, plays a key role in our people’s development. It is Jethro, the righteous gentile, who gives Moses the insight he needs to govern the people more efficiently and not burn out. And it’s more than that. Go to page 433 – 18:9. Jethro rejoices over the kindness that the Lord has shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be the Lord,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods,” and he brings a burnt offering. Think about this scene: Jethro praises God publicly even before the Israelites do so. He teaches the Israelites how to praise God!
What brought Jethro to God? The rabbinic opinions come fast and furiously. One said he heard of God’s parting of the sea and the drowning of the Israelites. Another suggests he came because of the imminent revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. He was a fellow seeker who saw the truth of the God of Israel. Jethro, the righteous gentile, and the Israelites share a sense of God who demands freedom and teaches goodness. Jethro was a partner in creating institutions that would allow dreams to be realized.
When we come together in partnership, love, and shared religious respect, dreams are realized. Dr. King, like Moses, opened his heart to partnership in visualizing the dream of religious equality. Do you know who gave the speech before Dr. King on that momentous day in August of 1963? It was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the head of the American Jewish Congress, who had been a major rabbi in Berlin when he fled the Nazis. He identified with the civil rights movement from the moment he stepped off the boat from Germany in 1937. He understood very early on that there was a direct connection between the plight of African Americans and the Jewish people. That day in Washington he declared, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned . . . is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a great nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America.”
Like Jethro, Rabbi Prinz saw the religious meaning in a moment that revolved around others, but in which he was a key partner. Just as Jethro gave voice to the faith that would animate the Jewish people, Rabbi Prinz gave voice to a vision that Dr. King would develop of dreaming, speaking out, and engaging with the world in a way that helped realize the vision.
And then Dr. King stood up and delivered one of the grandest, most eloquent, and most personal speeches of his life:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together… With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning —‘my country ‘tis of thee; sweet and of liberty; of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride; from every mountain side, let freedom ring’—and if America is to be a great nation, this must become true…And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’
Dr. King and Rabbi Prinz envisioned an America inspired by Moses and Jethro, people of different faiths who join together to realize a vision based upon shared dreams driven by faith. As we prepare to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King the same weekend we read the story of Jethro and Moses, we embrace the message that rings through the generations: Each individual has ultimate dignity, we cannot stand idly by as people are persecuted, our shared faith gives glory to the God who brings freedom to those who have been oppressed.
This weekend, let’s embrace the legacy of different people coming together to create a better world: Moses and Jethro; Dr. King and different communities of faith. Listen to Dr. King’s words reflecting on how this unity changed society: “I saw Protestants, Catholics, and Jews standing, singing, and praying together. I saw them marching together from Selma to Montgomery. So, I can say that the church, the synagogues are giving support to the movement now in a way that we haven’t known it before. I am absolutely convinced . . . that when we in the religious institutions of our nation really decide to stand firm on this issue, we will achieve not merely a desegregated society, but an integrated society which we all seek.” It is through alliance and respect that we can rid ourselves of oppression and racism that festers. It is through respect and inspiration from the distant and recent past that we can learn the lesson that together we can vanquish intolerance and bigotry. Much remains to be done in the work to create a just society. It is work best done together, and we join with others of conscience and faith to create a better world.