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Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.

Dvar Torah For Torah Portion VaYera and Commemorating Martin Luther King Day 5770.
                It is a complaint that repeats itself so many times in the short span of a few biblical chapters, we almost want to shut our ears out of embarrassment.  I am referring to Moses’ persistent protests that he is the wrong man for the job of forcing Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves.  Certainly, Moses is known in the Bible as anav me-od, extremely humble, as the book of Numbers, chapter 12 calls him;   yet this is not how Moses describes his inadequacy for the position of liberator and leader of Israel.  He refers constantly to his being an arel sefatayim and a kevad peh:  one who has uncircumcised lips and is slow of speech.  These phrases have been variously interpreted to mean that Moses had a severe speech impediment or that he simply was a poor speaker who could never hold his own before a big shot king like Pharaoh.  Whatever they actually mean, Moses clearly saw himself as unable to speak with force and eloquence before Pharaoh, which is why God dispatched his brother Aaron to serve as his speech maker and agent.
                Nowhere  is the role of Moses and Aaron as dynamic duo for the Lord expressed  more strikingly than in this morning’s Torah portion.  At the very beginning of Exodus, chapter 7, God tells Moses:  “See, I have made you as God before Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.”  This is a strange way for God to describe human beings, even two servants as close to God as Moses and Aaron.  Though Moses is described in biblical and later rabbinic literature as a prophet, referring to him as God feels  sacrilegious.  This is especially the case when we consider how forceful Judaism has always been in refusing to deify or even idealize Moses as a human being.  Further, referring to Aaron as a prophet or divine messenger seems so contradictory to the role he played throughout the Bible:  that of the conciliatory ritual functionary whose temperament at times clashed with Moses’ role as a truly fiery prophet speaking God’s admonitions to the people.  
                Numerous commentators found God’s descriptions of Moses and Aaron troubling as well.  Understanding that Pharaoh saw himself as a god, and had already refused to recognize the existence and supremacy of the God of Israel, these Torah teachers explained our strange passage in a number of interesting ways.  Moses was indeed God –more accurately God’s stand in- to Pharaoh, for Pharaoh would only be humbled by what and whom he could see.  According to our ancestors, God sent Moses to be “God before Pharaoh” in a number of ways:  as a master teacher, as a fear inspiring angel, as a judge, and as one with superior power.  Surely, only God can be God, but Moses would be the human conduit through which God would act to wreak judgment upon the arrogant oppressor.  Aaron would extend Moses’ divine agency through words of warning and admonition, as the mouthpiece of divine power.   Ultimately, these two brothers were flawed human beings who would die before reaching  the promised land with the Israelites.  However, in their lifetimes they concretized God’s battle with Pharaoh, and pressed God’s case against the king’s egomania and unjust  treatment of the Israelites.
                It is the rare leader fighting for justice who has the credibility and moral weight to be compared with Moses and Aaron.  The Reverend Martin Luther King jr., whose birthday and legacy we celebrate this weekend, was one of those rare leaders  for whom the comparison was appropriate.  Like Moses, he saw himself as God’s servant fighting for civil rights for the future generations descended from African American slaves, and for all Americans.  He lived and died by the words of the old African American spiritual that demanded of every Pharaoh in every age to “Let My people go” as Moses had done before him.  Like Moses, Dr. King was part master teacher, part awe inspiring angel, part judge who stood in judgment of a racially divided American society and found it sorely wanting. Like Aaron, Dr. King fought his war with the Pharaohs of bigotry and discrimination, not with plagues and violence, but with words:  eloquent words that showed people life could be better, that  America could behave better;  demanding words that organized boycotts and sit ins, pressed hard on the laws and law makers of America, and  inspired thousands to dedicate their lives to the cause of freedom; healing words that showed America that human rights are not some marriage of convenience between a government and its citizens, but an eternal truth embedded in the word and will of God, Creator of all human beings.
                The night before he was murdered, April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis TN, in support of striking sanitation workers in that city.  Eerily alluding to what may have been his recognition that his life might soon end, he spoke these famous words, through which he connected himself once again to Moses and his legacy of fighting for freedom:
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. 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. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." 

An old Jewish aphorism states that from Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.  It is referring to Moshe Rabbeinu and to Moses Maimonides, our great Torah teacher of the middle ages.  Reflecting upon the life of Martin Luther King jr., I might amend that saying in honor of this weekend:  From Moses to Martin, there was no one like Martin.  And that has made all the difference in this, our promised land.  Shabbat shalom.

(c) 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein                

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