Last week, as we found ourselves in the middle of our annual celebration of Zman Cherutenu, our emergence from the degradation of Egyptian slavery, the fifth day of Pesach coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of a man who devoted his life toward helping his own community in its long and arduous process of emergence from the bondage of American slavery, toward the full blessings of liberty, prosperity, and freedom.
Our Torah has taught us that our own experience of historical suffering in Egypt is meant to serve as a powerful impetus to identify more fully with the suffering of other marginalized groups. As such, we pause to reflect on the courage and heroism of Dr. King and all those who stood with him, including many members of our own faith community, in the long and painful struggle for racial justice.
We must remember that the struggle for racial justice is but a manifestation of one of the foundational principles of our faith, the dignity of all human beings, all of us created in the image of the Divine (Avot 3:14). The dignity of the human being, kevod ha-beriyot, in halachic literature, is given far reaching significance, often superseding other halachic concerns of great weight (Brachot 19b-20a). As long as racism and prejudice exist, in any form, our collective sense of kevod ha-beriyot is assailed. As Dr. King reminded us, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We must also remember, as believing Jews, that Dr. King drew much of his strength from our sacred texts, from the Tanach. From his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington mall, replete with imagery from Amos and Isaiah, to the final speech he gave the night before his assassination in Memphis, which borrowed its central motif and symbolism from the end of Sefer Devarim, with Moshe beholding the Land of Israel from the apex of Mount Nebo, Dr. King’s work, in form and in substance, is a testament to the enduring power and relevance of our sacred texts, out of which emerge our cherished values.
Dr. King may have passed from this earth, but some of the deepest wellsprings of his vision and moral fortitude, our very own sacred texts, should continue to inform and direct us, as children of Abraham, on our collective path in pursuit of “righteousness and justice” (Beresheit 18:19). We should never doubt the power of our sacred texts to inspire, and even to change the face of the world.
Fifty years is, most assuredly, a significant amount of time. Biblically, it is referred to literally as an olam — an eternity. Thankfully, in the half-century since Dr. King’s murder, much has changed in this country for the better as it concerns the matters of racial justice and prejudice of all forms. And yet much more work remains to be done.
We must continue to remind ourselves and others that speaking with greater sensitivity about other groups, eschewing epithets of any kind, is not some kind of concession to political correctness, but a matter of basic decency, of kevod ha-beriyot. No fewer than three Torah level prohibitions enumerated by Rambam (No. 251, 252, 255) relate to ona’at devarim, verbal abuse, with a special emphasis on sensitivity to those who may come from historically marginalized groups. Sadly, even amongst rabbinic scholars of indisputably great standing, as we were recently reminded, this sensitivity is not always manifest.
We must continue to be concerned, as committed citizens of this country, not only for the quality of education that our own children receive, but the quality of education and opportunity that all children receive, whether they live in Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta or the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago.
We must abhor the gun violence that snuffs out the lives of so many, as Dr. King certainly did in his tireless campaigning against the scourge of gun violence, not only when the victims are students in affluent suburbs, but especially when they are the forgotten children of America’s inner city ghettos. The wanton destruction of one human life, inimitable in its reflection of the Divine image, diminishes our sense of God’s presence in the world altogether (Yevamot 63a). As Rambam reminds us, there was no sin about which the Torah was so strict as it was about bloodshed (Hilkhot Rotzeach U’Shemirat Nefesh 1:4).
“It is not upon us to finish the work, but neither may we fail to engage altogether” (Avot 2:19). Together in memory of a man who, in his brief 39 years on this earth, stirred the consciousness of our nation, let us move forward in pursuit of dignity and justice for all.
Daniel Fridman is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.