Tag Archives: MLK

A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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. So 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.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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Fifty Years After Selma, Still Fighting for Liberation at the Seder

50thAnniversaryBloodySundayOn March 7th and March 8th, earlier this month, tens of thousands gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama spoke and former President George W. Bush attended. They were joined by Democrats and Republicans —  legislators, politicians, and civilians –  all marching to commemorate the freedom-marchers clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers as they peacefully marched for the right to vote half a century ago.

This past Shabbat, March 21st, 2015, was the anniversary of the third DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworthof those three marches, the march that led to the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, the march that was successful and led to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act several months later. This march also marked the moment when religious leaders of all faiths, ethnicities, and races refused to stand idly by, and chose to walk alongside the likes of King, Lewis, Abernathy, Bunche, and Shuttlesworth.

This march was a reminder that freedom is a God-given right so we must walk alongside our brothers and sisters to ensure that our freedom is their freedom. The likes of Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Davis, and so many other religious leaders who marched, knew that we could not celebrate our freedom and our liberation while others were not yet liberated, while others were discriminated against.

Fifty years later, we still talk about this picture and this march. We talk about how far society has come and yet, how far we have to go. This past Shabbat, as we observed this fiftieth anniversary, we also read a special Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, the fourth of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover. This special maftir Torah reading comes from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus and goes into detail about how to slaughter the pascal sacrifice and then how to eat that sacrifice. What we rush over, but what is arguably the most significant of instructions, is the reminder to put the blood of the sacrifice on our doorposts. For it was that blood that saved the Israelites and ultimately, following the tenth and final plague, led to their freedom. The essence of the ritual is to remind us of that freedom.

In fact, all rituals of the Passover seder are meant to remind us of freedom and liberation. We are taught:

B’chol Dor va’dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Such an obligation is not about remembering or re-enacting. Such an obligation is about acknowledging that there is still liberation that needs to take place in our society and in our world. Telling the Passover narrative must remind us of the marching that we still need to do, that there is still inequality in society, still those that we must work to liberate. Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of the Jewish social justice organization, Bend the Arc, offers insight into the rabbis of B’nai Brak that we read about in the Passover Haggadah. We learn in the Haggadah that they were so engaged in the seder that theytalk until daybreak, when their students interrupt them. Rothbaum reminds us that they were not discussing ritual or debating halakha, Jewish law. Rather, they were up until the early hours of the morning talking about liberation – about the exodus experience. A room of rabbis suffering through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire were focused on our communal liberation narrative, in hopes of their own liberation.

For ultimately, that is what the seder is all about: telling the story. In my family, we tend to rush through the rituals aspects of the seder in order to get to the magid section in which we retell the exodus narrative. We do so because we find hope and inspiration in the narrative. Such an exodus from slavery to freedom reminds us of what is possible. It reminds us that we must continue to fight for liberation of all. We must continue to fight racial injustice and gender discrimination. We must continue to fight religious persecution, bigotry, and homophobia. We must continue to fight, to march, and to take action, until we can all experience the journey to freedom.

The Zohar explains that Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is derived from the Hebrew MiTzarim, which literally means, “from narrowness.” We march away from narrow-minded discrimination and bigotry towards a promised land of equality and love.

Civil rights leaders organized three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one ended with peaceful protesters bloodied and beaten. But they marched again, and again. We don’t just look back on a single march, but instead on all three marches, for in continuing to march, we find a determination and dedication to justice and to freedom.

With each plague in Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, but that did not stop Moses from demanding to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Each march shared a similar declaration. No matter how many times it took, people of all faiths continued to march and were determined to cross that metaphorical split sea.

The image of that third march, of Heschel and King marching together, along with so many other clergy of diverse faiths and backgrounds, is a reminder that we march together for freedom for all. The prophetic words of Dr. King ring true for people of all faiths:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How can we celebrate freedom when others are not? How can we celebrate liberation when there is still such injustice in our society?

We read in the Haggadah:

This year we are slaves. Next year, free people.

We acknowledge that as long as there is injustice, we cannot truly be free. We cannot celebrate freedom for ourselves until we can celebrate freedom and equality for all. So fifty years later, may we continue to march. May we continue to peacefully assembly and may our seder experiences serve as catalysts in our shared efforts to liberate us all from societal injustice. This year there is still injustice and discrimination. Next year, may we all be liberated.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Martin Luther King’s Legacy Snap us out of Complacency

This article was originally published on January 19, 2015 on the American observance of Martin Luther King Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

Why the Jewish community must be reawakened to praying with our feet, and recommit to participating in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

Martin Luther King Day recognizes the life, legacy, and work of the fallen leader of the civil rights movement, but it is hardly a celebration. In 1994, President Clinton signed federal legislation into law, turning this day into a National Martin Luther King Day of Service. This initiative invites Americans to get inspired by the ideals, ethics and values that Dr. King embodied and volunteer their time to help others, making this world just a little bit better.

However, we are selling King’s legacy short if we settle for a once-a-year volunteer opportunity or a community service project as a way to honor him. King was not just about helping those in need. He was about creating lasting change, inspiring legislative reform, through peaceful protest and non-violent action.

Such action is highlighted in the film “Selma,” which tells the story of King leading a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the statehouse in Montgomery. Hanging on the wall in my office is a picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm-in-arm with King during that march. Heschel reflected about his experience that day with a now well-known phrase: “I felt my feet were praying.” I look at this picture every day as I sit at my desk. It is a reminder of the Jewish imperative to work toward justice. But it also serves as a reminder that we all too often become complacent.

MLK DayKing famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” The deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict these officers, serve as chilling reminders that systemic racism is still a scary reality. Those of us who live a life of privilege can’t take our advantages for granted or allow them to lull us into complacency. We need to get off of our metaphorical butts. We cannot ignore the injustice that our brothers and sisters deal with every day. We need to draw inspiration from King, and Heschel, and learn again to pray with our feet.

Rabbi Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot 2:6 that in a place where there are no good and righteous people, we must strive to be those righteous individuals. All the more so, when so many others are silent and apathetic, we must strive to be righteous and act toward justice. We are commanded in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The Torah acknowledges that while justice is an ideal, it does not come easily. We are not commanded to sit around and wait for justice to happen. We are not commanded to talk about justice and expect society will be different. We are commanded to pursue justice, to chase after it.

Let us not settle for a day of remembrance. Let us not settle for a day of community service. Let our observance of Martin Luther King Day be a day filled with dialogue, spirited debate and ultimately, action. Let King’s peaceful protests remind us that we have the ability to bring about change. Let King’s words be a call to action, decades after he said them. As Jews, let us not stand idly by. As we celebrate the life King, may we also remember to live the principles of the Torah, and not just study them. In doing so, may we stand alongside those who suffer injustices because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Let us pursue justice by praying with our feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Pope and the Rabbi

Every year, at the conclusion of the calendar year, Time Magazine comes out with their Person of the Year cover. The cover story focuses on the most influential individual in the news over the past twelve months. During the last fifteen years, Time Magazine Person of the Year award winners have included US Presidents Obama and Bush, world leaders like Vladimir Putin, and social innovators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The list of nominees of this past year’s Person of the Year cover story included Edward Snowden, who announced to the world that the NSA spies on us, Edith Windsor, whose case before the Supreme Court led to the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and a recognition by the high court of the rights of same-sex married couples, Bashar Assad, the tyrant who has murdered tens of thousands of those who challenge his authority in Syria, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who pushed for the government shut down last fall. All of these nominees are worthy of the cover, but who ended up on the Time Magazine cover? Pope Francis.

According to Time Magazine, Pope Francis was the most influential newsmaker over the last 12 months. As noted in the magazine’s article, instead of worrying about sexual ethics or fighting over lines of authority, the Pope has elevated the healing mission of the Catholic Church, using the church as a comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world. Pope Francis’ predecessors were professors of theology, but Pope Francis is the pope of the people, serving as a janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician, and school teacher before becoming a man of the cloth.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion in which the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. While we may tend to focus on the legalistic core of the Torah portion, we refer to as Yitro, meaning Jethro, the high priest of Midyan, the chief cleric of the Midianites. In fact, the Torah portion begins with Yitro’s embrace of Moshe, the leader of the Israelites, making Yitro’s impact all the more noteworthy. Moses, reunites with his family after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, into freedom. His wife Tzipporah and their two sons, stayed behind as he journeyed back into Egypt in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Following the miracles, and the splitting of the sea, following the singing and dancing and praising God with timbrel in hand, Moses is reunited with his family. Yet, before Moses even reunites with his wife and kids, he runs right past them and greets his father in law.

But this singular embrace was not a son-in-law hugging his father-in-law. Rather, it was two religious leaders embracing each other. This was an embrace of the leader of the Israelites embracing Yitro, Kohen Midyan, the High Priest of Midian. They went into the tent and shared stories of faith and of God’s glory. Jethro’s impact continues as he instructs Moses to set up a court system, ensuring justice in the process, making sure everyone’s voices are heard.

Every year, during Martin Luther King weekend, we in the Jewish community are reminded ofDR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the powerful impact of interfaith dialogue and building relationships, based on a shared commitment between faith-based communities and faith leaders. The image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may both of their memories be for a blessing, marching arm-in-arm is engrained in our communal memories. It’s a reminder of the importance of our shared paths as humanity, regardless of our faith and beliefs. It is a reminder that we need to come together, despite our differences, to learn about those differences. Doing so, allows us to grow as individuals. To know the other is to truly know one’s self. Heschel understood King’s tasks as his own, based on a shared ideology, theology, and scripture.

On Florida’s First Coast, Martin Luther King Jr. was barred from entering Jacksonville and instead went south to speak in St. Augustine. Upon his arrest for speaking at the Monson motel, King reached out to his rabbinic colleagues for help. Rabbis gathered and united in support of King, and their shared mission towards justice. The end result: the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history. A more important result: faith-based leaders coming together for the sake of one another.

Many suggest that religion is the root of all evil, that religion and differences in religious beliefs, are what causes violence and war. The reality is that ignorance is the root of all evil. Ignorance, a misunderstanding of another’s beliefs, or a refusal to acknowledge that there are those that believe differently from us, is the root of all evil.

Coming together though, learning from one another and embracing each other – and our differences – is the key to peace. After all, the Psalmist challenges us: Hineh Mah Tov Umah Nayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. How wonderful would it be if we all were willing to see each other as brothers and sisters, as one, despite our differences in belief, in practice, in ritual.

Moses understood thisthis when he embraced Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, before embracing anyone else. He knew this because he was a Hebrew living among Egyptians, growing up in Egyptian culture, living in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. His Judaism was strengthened by learning from those around him who are different.

Pope Francis and Rabbi SkorkaLike the relationship between Yitro and Moshe, the Time Magazine cover means great things for  understanding and embracing the other. Never before has a Pope had such a positive and personal relationship with representatives of other faiths, especially those in the Jewish community. Long before he was Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as Cardinal and Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, going out of his way to pastor to the most needy. Rabbi Abraham Skorka serves the Jewish community of Buenos Aires and actually serves as rector of Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano, the Latin American Rabbinical School affiliated with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently, their friendship began with Bergoglio ribbed the Rabbi about their rival soccer teams.

But their friendships grew. They began meeting and having regular inter-religious dialogue, that culminated in the book On Heaven and Earth, a conversation about their views. Their friendship is so strong that Rabbi Skorka actually has spent evenings in the Vatican visiting the Pope, and the Pope has hosted him and his family for Shabbat dinner, kashering the kitchen in the Vatican to accommodate him. They plan on visiting Israel together later this year.

Such a public expression of their friendship is more than a statement about their friendship. It is setting an example, for Catholics, for Jews, and for all people of faith to embrace each other and learn from each other, for the betterment of society and the world. A rabbi having Shabbos dinner at the Vatican is the equivalent of Exodus 18:7:

Vayetzeh Moshe Likrat Chotno va’yishtachu va’yishak lo

It’s the equivalent to Moses running out to greet Jethro, bowing before him and kissing him; a public display of acceptance, of appreciation, of friendship.

Jacksonville is set comfortably in the Bible Belt, in a community where there are more churches than gas stations. We are a part of a cohesive and warm Jewish community, yet I fear that sometimes, we do not reach out to “the other” and thus, the other doesn’t reach out to us in return. We have an opportunity in the Jewish community in Jacksonville, and in all faith-based communities, to embrace the other, to be like Moshe and Yitro. We have an opportunity to work together, based on our shared beliefs, faith, and values. We have an opportunity to learn together, grow together, and work together to create a more just society. That is what Moshe and Yitro did creating a judicial system. That is what Heschel and King did, marching together and fighting for the Civil Rights for all. That is what Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis do, learning, conversing, and breaking bread together. That is what we must do. So let us seek out those Midianite Priests around us and welcome them into our tents. May we emulate Moses and Jethro’s shared knowledge, mutual respect, and friendship. And may we be better people as a result.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermon Now Available

Shanah Tovah! I hope you had a spiritually meaningful and uplifting Rosh Hashanah and take the opportunity to spend these Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance reflecting, asking for forgiveness, and going out of your way to forgive. Our goal is for all of us to enter Yom Kippur with a clean slate and make great changes in the year ahead. My sermon from the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, entitled Justice Renewed, is now available. You can read the PDF: Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5774 – Justice Renewed or listen to the audio file here. Additionally, both are available on the Sermon Page of this blog. The text of the sermon is below:

Justice Renewed

My grandfather is quite the story teller. Like most grandfathers when he tells a story the television goes off, the heads turn towards him, he grabs the attention of the entire room, and his grandchildren listen with delight. While at least the first time he tells the story. Also, like most grandfathers, my Pop-Pop tends to retell stories. We still listen. I listen with amazement. I listen with awe.

My favorite story of his takes place in the early days of his career as a traveling salesman. While living in Rochester, New York, he would regularly leave my bubbe and mother to drive up and down the east coast, selling siding. He was in the home improvement business – first it was selling siding, then decks, then windows, but I think he was still selling siding at the time. He would stay at a motel for weeks at a time while in an area. While selling siding in the deep south, he befriended many of the hotel employees and elevator operators, many of whom happened to be African-American. Staying in town soon before an upcoming election, he learned that none of them were registered to vote. He organized after-hour meetings in his hotel room to help them register to vote… that was until he received threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan.

He eventually returned to his family in Rochester and maybe the fear of burning crosses on the front lawn caused him to return earlier than anticipated. Still, when his new friends at the hotel asked him why he was helping them, complete strangers in a town that was far from his own home, he offered a simple answer: I am Jewish, he said.

PeaceAndJusticeImageI am Jewish. A powerful statement. An even more powerful explanation. Not about our belief in God, but about our belief in humanity. Not about personal practice or action, but about action towards others. Not about ethnicity, but about ethics. I am Jewish is the simple reason for Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It is the reason for a voice of faith and a voice of reason in the fight for Marriage Equality. It is the reason we collect food to donate to the needy while fighting to end hunger and homeless. I am Jewish. It is the reason we do everything we do. It is the reason that Reform Rabbinical Seminary Hebrew Union College many years ago, while she was still living, awarded Rosa Parks an honorary doctorate for taking a stand by staying seated.

I am Jewish is the reason that the Jewish Theological Seminary — where I studied, where Rabbi Lubliner studied, where Hazzan Holzer studied, where Dr. Mitzmacher studied — last year honored Civil Rights Leader — and now Congressman — John Lewis for being a youth role model during the Civil Rights Movement for action through words rather than through violence.

In his speech at JTS commencement last year upon receiving his honorary degree, Representative Lewis charged the students to get into trouble. He said: “You must go out and find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. You must play a role in helping to make our country, helping to make our world, a better place.”

Judaism puts specific emphasis on the 50th year of something. The Jubilee year, or the Yovel, is a time for celebration. It’s the 50th year of crop cycle. Seven represents completion – seven days of the week, seven times a partner circles around the other underneath the chuppah. So too, the seventh year in the land of Israel is the shemitah year, the sabbatical year. The land would not be tilled, indentured servants would be released.

After seven cycles of this seven year cycle — forty-nine years in total, we celebrate the fiftieth year, the Yovel, the Jubilee.

Last week marked a sort of Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the famous March on Washington. At the time, this event was the largest organized rally in American history, and to this day, it still ranks as one of the largest rallies for human rights in our country’s short history.  The event was organized as a march for jobs and freedom, but what it was really a march for civil rights, for human rights, for God-given rights. Most estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 peacefully assembled at the National Mall, culminating their march at the Lincoln Memorial where participants heard from civil rights leaders, and faith leaders, concluding with the lasting memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” Speech.

While Dr. King gets all the credit for his inspirational words, his vision, and his dream, it was the action of others, the actions of all, that made the march happen.

Bob Zellner was Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His father was in the Ku Klux Klan. His grandfather was in the Ku Klux Klan. He was organizing the largest to date march for equality. Hollywood celebrities showed support with the likes of Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, James Garner, and Paul Newman in attendance.

Julian Bond, Co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee made a promise to his parents not to get arrested, not to go to jail because of these protests. He assured them that he was a pacifist, that this was a non-violent protest. Nan Orrock, now a state senator in Georgia attended the march, despite protests from her parents, despite the fact that she went to an all-white school in what was at the time the still segregated state of Georgia.

As previously mentioned, John Lewis, now Representative John Lewis, was Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He said that walking down Constitutional Ave, he witnessed all of America, “people from coming from all over the country to bear witness, to participate.

Many of the people were well dressed. It was like going to church or temple or synagogue,” he said. People were dressing up for worship for they were worshipping, for regardless of faith, they were participating in prayer, they were acting as God’s messengers in this world.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, spoke immediately before Dr. King’s famous oratory. As a young rabbi in Germany he actively opposed and stood up to the rise of Nazi fascism. Then at the Lincoln Memorial he prayed that Shema Koleynu, that God hears our voices, but also said, acknowledging his own tribulations: “it is not simply sympathy and compassion for the black population of America that motivates us…It is a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”

Speaking at the Jubilee event, the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama said that this was about more than just the African-American community. He said, “they marched and America became more free and more fair” and I would add more just, “not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for Gays, and for Americans with disabilities.” At it’s core, this March on Washington was truly about justice.

Our High holy Day Machzor explains that justice is the ultimate principle by which the world exists. The biblical standard of justice is always defined by the treatment of the poor, the weak, the powerless, the infirm, the unprotected. God’s care is especially directed towards the most vulnerable, and societies are judged by how they are treated. The lack of justice is the undoing of God’s creation.

This event, this March, ultimately was about justice, but at its core, it was a spiritual event. It was a spiritual experience. As Representative Lewis said, they were dressing up for worship. They were dressing up because they were worshipping; they were praying, God was present.

Bernice King, the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, who was only a couple of months old during her father’s historic speech, spoke at this Jubilee event. I, along with Rabbi Lubliner and Hazzan Holzer, as well as other members of our city, heard her speak last year at Jacksonville’s annual Martin Luther King Day interfaith breakfast. When she spoke on the day of this Jubilee, one week ago, she reminded everyone:

Martin Luther King Jr. is often remembered as a freedom fighter for equal rights and for human rights. Most importantly though, he was a man of faith. He was a faith leader with the spirit of God — Ruach Elohim, as we call it in Judaism — and the faith community, she said, must continue to lead every movement for justice and equality.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, the 16th century Jewish mystic, was teaching about Judaism’s movement towards justice 500 years ago. He taught that we are God’s partner in the creation of the world. The first to use the term Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World, he suggested that Adonai created humans to remedy an error in the Divine creation of this world. We were created to ensure the equality and justice that God hoped to create. We are created to act. So this morning, we act.

Our three pillars program this morning introduced us to the core Mishnaic teaching that the world rests on three pillars, on the pillar of Torah Study, on the pillar of Avodah, Prayer, and on the pillar of Gemilut Hasadim, Social Action and Social Justice. To suggest that these three pillars hold up this world means that each pillar is an integral part of this world; each pillar is an integral part of our faith. If we only focus on one and not the other, the world will collapse. Additionally, this message reminds us that these three pillars on which the world stands are of equal importance. Prayer is just as important as Torah study. Acts of Kindness and Justice are just as important as prayer and study. More striking, Prayer and Study are meaningless without Acts of Kindness and Justice. Even as we wrestle with God, even as we teach and learn Torah, with the pillar of Justice missing, the world will still collapse. Acts of Kindness, and Acts of Justice, are Acts of Torah study, rooted in the scriptural core of our faith. Acts of Kindness and Acts of Justice are Acts of Prayer and Worship, to use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s metaphor, when we act, we pray with our feet. We did that on a small scale this morning through social action. We do that on the greater scale through social justice.

I was hesitant to share my vision, my belief for our need for justice, to pursue justice, even if our liturgy speaks of it, even if the words of rabbinic literature speak of it, even if Torah speaks of it. I thought twice because I fear – I know – that some think I speak about our need to do justice too much. I worried about pigeon-holing myself, constricting the Torah that I teach. I worried about being viewed as the rabbi who only speaks about our need to repair the world.

Then, I realized that this is why we do all that we do. Every single thing we do, every teaching of our tradition, every attempt to bring ourselves closer to God, every attempt to immerse ourselves in ritual, is meant to ignite a spark to act as the angels of God, the messengers of God, that we are. Every teaching of Torah, every spiritual experience, is meant to fuel the fire, so that that spark within us turns into a towering flame, like the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame above our ark, our Aron Kodesh, a towering flame to walk in God’s ways, and do God’s will.

I was worried that these thoughts would be seen as political or divisive. But then I said three simple words. Three words that my grandfather said to me. Three words that are the reason we do what we do. I AM JEWISH.

For if we do not care about repairing the world, if we do not care about making this world a better place, if we do not care about the rights of other, if we do not care about honoring God, through honoring God’s creatures, made in God’s image, if we do not care about justice and equality, then nothing else we do as Jews matters. So we get up. We stand up. We do, and we act. The new year is about renewal. It is about change – changing our ways and ridding ourselves of the apathy that too often exists.

The disturbing liturgy of the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer during the Musaf Amidah speaks of the reality of the injustices that surrounds us: Some will live and some will die. Some will live a long happy life while others will leave this world long before their time. Some will die of hunger and thirst; some will die of plague; some will be impoverished and some will be enriched; some will be brought low and some will be raised up. Some will feel at peace while others will live a life of trouble.

The liturgy speaks of the injustice that exists. Yet, we are also charged by this same liturgy to change that reality.

We recite: U’Teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah Ma’avirim et-Roah Hagezerah. Despite the darkness of this world, despite the chaos that surrounds us, the injustice that is reality, we are taught that through Teshuvah, through Repentance, through Tefillah, through Connection with God, and through Tzedakah – not charity, but true justice – we can change the harsh reality.

The U’netaneh Tokef begs us to change ourselves and to change the world, to turn our world from a world of chaos to a world of calm. We spent the month of Elul doing Teshuvah. We spend the Chagim, the High Holy Days — and God-willing every day — making time for prayer. And we leave the sanctuary, the synagogue, inspired and charged to participate in true justice, to fulfill God’s promise.

God’s promise is heard in the prophetic charges in our Bible. We hear the demand of the prophet Micah, when he says: What does God require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

We hear the prayer of the prophet Amos: Let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Those words echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when Reverend King preached them during his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago. That was not his speech, that was his prayer. That was God’s word. According to King’s speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, King’s speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper. The press was given advanced copies of his speech the morning of the March on Washington and it looked nothing like the speech he gave. It begins the same, with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ‘em about the dream.” Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: the people don’t know it yet, but they’re about to go to church. They’re about to go to synagogue. They’re about to go to services. In that dream, he quoted the words of Amos. He quoted the Psalmist. He quoted the prophet Isaiah.

Dr. King taught us that the arc of the moral universe bends towards Justice. But it does not bend on its own. We bend it. As Nehemiah, who was charged in our Tanakh with returning to Jerusalem, rebuilding the city and purifying the people, put it:

“The work is great and large, and we at times feel separated from one another. But when we hear the sounding of the shofar, the blasts of the shofar, we hear God. For God is on our side.” God is on the side of justice. So as we go ahead, in the new year,  as we pursue justice, as we pursue peace, let us keep one thought in our minds to guide us: I am Jewish. Shanah Tovah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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