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Rabbi Tiferet’s talk at the Martin Luther King Prayer service

Rabbi Tiferet’s words delivered at our community Martin Luther King Prayer service at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hainesport, Jan. 14, 2018:

Good evening. I am so honored to be sharing these words with you this evening. Dr. Martin Luther King was not just Dr. King, the civil rights leader. He was first and foremost Reverend Dr. King. In Rev. King’s own words, “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.”

So, what a blessing it is to be able to share some words of Torah on the celebration of his birth and his life. Yehi zecher tzadik livracha. Let the memory of the righteous be a blessing to us!

How many people were present last night at Sacred Heart? What a beautiful evening of song and preaching. I cherished standing, holding my 1-year-old sweet daughter close and singing together with those present “We Shall Overcome.” Every year, we sing this song and every year I wonder, “How come we haven’t yet overcome!?!?”

It is the year 2018, 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. King, 64 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka Kansas calling for the desegregation of public schools, 148 years after the adoption of the 15th amendment which stipulates that “”The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 153 years since the 13th amendment formally abolished slavery 155 years after the emancipation proclamation, the executive order by President Lincoln, which changed the legal status of persons enslaved to free. So I asked myself last night and I ask you now, how is it that we not yet overcome?

We turn to our sacred texts to look at the root of this belief and we find ourselves in Genesis, with our father Abraham, Avraham in Hebrew. In chapter 15, G!d tells them him that his offspring will be enslaved in a land not their own for 400 years. But don’t worry, G!d said, because they will overcome. I will execute judgment on the nation that oppresses them and they will go free with great wealth. That’s a promise that G!d made and we saw it come true in the book of Exodus.

And we are waiting for that promise to materialize in our lifetime, before our eyes. Well, some of are waiting. Some of us have stopped waiting because we’ve given up hope and some of us are happily living in that “promised time” because of emancipation, and because of the abolition of slavery, and the right to vote, and equal rights to schools, and of course, because we had a black president.

African heritage people, Latinos, women, we’re all equal now! Right? But, we know that equality is not necessarily justice. I’m reminded of an image, of three people trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. This is not a perfect metaphor, but it is a good place to begin the discussion. The first person can see over the fence just fine, the middle person can kind of see over, and the third person cannot see at all. So, each of them receives the same size crate to stand on. The person who could already see can still see, they’re just higher up. The middle person is at the level the first person was to begin with and the third person still cannot see over the fence. This is the definition of equality, everyone receiving or being viewed as the same.

This has been driven in our culture by the myth of America as the melting pot. But, we’re not. Even though we have historically assimilated into one American culture, within that we are still our unique selves. We’re an American salad! The lettuce isn’t going to melt into the tomatoes, they’ll still be their own distinct vegetables with different colors and textures and flavors, yet still a part of the salad. So, our goal is no longer equality. That has been achieved, we see, from the list of achievements I mentioned earlier. Now, it’s time to seek equity.

Using the same image, the first person doesn’t get a crate. They don’t need one! The second person gets a crate to be at the same level as the first person. And the third person gets two crates to be at the same level as the other two people. This is equity. And then, there’s a third option, which tears down the fence itself!! That is liberation. These two concepts figure highly in the Jewish tradition and are considered tikkun olam.

Tikkun olam is usually translated as repairing the world. According to my teacher Rabbi Dr. Jane Kanarek, tikkun olam is a legal word in our tradition that “reflects an understanding that part of the law’s purpose is to create a more just society, rather than a perfect one.” She continues, “The focus is not so much on the power of an individual to effect change, but rather on the power of the law to correct systemic injustice.”

So, for Jews, Martin Luther King and this day on which we celebrate him speaks to our concept of tikkun olam, making the world more just. Thanks to the King Holiday and Service Act of 1994, on the third Monday of every January, we have an opportunity and an obligation to work for Tikkun Olam in honor of Dr. King. Tomorrow is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service — “a day on, not a day off” to bring us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”

In this lies the challenge to us. Tikkun olam is not easy. It’s certainly not always comfortable. If it was, our world would be just and perfect! It requires facing truths that might make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, we like to take the easy road and do acts of lovingkindness, gemilut chesed on this day of service.

In Deuteronomy it says “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” justice, justice you shall pursue. So, the question comes up, why does it say justice twice? If it were a comment on the tenacity with which we should pursue justice the text would say something like tzedek radof tirdof, Justice you shall surely pursue. But that is not what it says. The verse is showing us that there are two types of justice: tzedek tachton, which is an earthly, basic righteousness, similar to gemilut chesed, acts of lovingkindness; and tzedek eliyon, an overarching justice, like tikkun olam. And the Torah teaches us that we need them both when it says tzedek twice in the verse. We must pursue them both.

But on Martin Luther King Day, we should lean toward pursuing tzedek elyion, that higher, overarching, society-changing justice. For equity. Because that is what Dr. King stood for, what he lived and died for. So we have to get up and out of our comfort zones, and maybe even our own zip codes, and honor his memory with our service.

That is going to look different for different people because, again, we are a salad! But, we’re all working for the betterment of our world and building beloved community. How do we do this work?
The first step is to get educated. Ask some questions and seek the answers. Why are prisons overpopulated? What is a food desert? Why aren’t they showing the national anthem on TV before football games anymore? In every situation ask yourself who benefits and who does not.

Then, if you don’t like the answers, find ways to use your privileges and your access to do something. Because if you’ve got the passion, you’ve got the fire in your soul, you will do it and you will not be stopped.

You remember G!d’s promise to Avraham that after 400 years the people would be free? Let me tell you the first slaves were brought to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in the year 1619, and that was 399 years ago. We got one more year, family!

In the Jewish tradition, 18 is the numerical equivalent of the word chai, which means life. This year, 2018 is the year 20chai, when we make an extra commitment to living and working for chai, for life! I want you to commit to doing that at the very least tomorrow.

I want you to turn to somebody and say your life matters. Now turn to someone else and say my life matters. At the end of every Jewish prayer service we have a prayer which begins with the word Aleinu, which means, it is on us. And the prayer talks about bringing about tikkun olam, that overarching justice which will leave us standing in malchut shaddai, G!d’s kingdom. And we’re going to close with a reading along those lines from former Bishop John Shelby Spong. Please rise if you are able. And put up your hands, your tools of service, and let them be blessed by this reading… (Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy p. 140):

As humans we are on the same mission. Regardless of the language in which G!d calls to us, or the names we use to respond, we have all been tasked with this same work. Do it in peace and love. Blessings to you for listening to these words, and may your have a blessed day of service tomorrow.

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