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Who Will Stand With  Us?  Parshat Va'Erah

01/17/2023 06:36:44 PM


Rabbi Moshe Rudin

The above iconic picture shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a survivor of the Holocaust and one of the greatest teachers to ever guide the American Jewish Community, marching in the spring of 1965 with his friend and ally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights for African Americans.  

In previous marches, marchers were attacked and even murdered by police and racist mobs, so Rabbi Heschel’s presence and support was far more than a gesture of support: it was a declaration of common cause.  

For Heschel and other Jewish leaders who joined Dr. King, standing staunchly with the African American Community was fulfilling the Torah mitzvah of Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, justice shall you pursue.  Heschel’s comment: “In Selma, I felt like I was praying with my feet,” has become sacred text for our community.

Looking at that historic moment from our perspective all these years later, as our community faces a rise in anti-Semitism so stunning and dramatic that even the organizations that were created to advocate for equality and freedom from bigotry are taken aback, it seems the right time to ask:

Who will stand with us in our time of need? 

In our Torah portion, G-d tells Moses and Aaron to lead a delegation of Israelites, the 70 tribal Elders, to confront Pharaoh and to demand an end to slavery.  

Cut to the next scene.  

Moses, Aaron face Pharaoh and his court, his guards and magicians, all alone.  The Elders are nowhere to be found.  What happened?

The Midrash explains: When Moses summoned the nation to face Pharoah, the elders were at first enthusiastic and filled with zeal.  But on their way to the royal palace, they began to waver.  The sight of the trappings of power cow them and suddenly the freedom call of the invisible G-d of Israel doesn’t seem as compelling as the magnificent pyramids and the glittering weapons of the soldiery of Egypt.  They begin to steal away, one by one, two by two until- it’s only Moses and Aaron left to demand, Let My people go!

The Elders are not cowards, not evil, not betrayers.  But when the moment summoned them to ascend, they did not.  That is why, when they sought to join Moses at Sinai, they were not permitted. Those who lacked the vision and faith to behold G-d standing with the slaves could never see G-d in freedom.

As our community stands in the crucible of the renewed flames of bigotry, as we see unmistakable signs that the lies and calumnies about Jews and Israel spread on social media have indeed taken root in the minds of a majority of Americans, we may come to our own march for freedom.  Who will stand with us then?  

I asked myself that question for the first time on Monday, the 37th celebration of MLK Day.  As I looked at that amazing picture of King and Heschel marching, I saw a strange transformation.  What if had been Dr. King who was invited to walk in support of Rabbi Heschel rather than the other way around?

The answer, thank G-d, was a heartening one. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was an unwavering, passionate and eloquent supporter of the Jewish community and of Israel.  He saw us as not only sharing a common bond of suffering but of a common obligation.  In his own words: 

My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.

-MLK Jr. At the American Jewish Committee Convention, 1958

Sometimes, as shadows loom, I think I can see them in the distance, the Minister and the Rabbi, arm in arm, on their way to confront Pharaoh again. Had Dr. King not been cut down by a brutal assassin’s bullets, the next night would have found him at Rabbi Heschel’s apartment celebrating a Passover Seder.  True heart, true friend.  Let us celebrate his legacy and continue it in common cause, commitment, action.  Like Rabbi Heschel, let us never hesitate to pray with our feet and stay true to the Voice of Sinai calling us to lead the way to freedom.

Shabbat Shalom


Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784