The national commemoration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., which we marked earlier this week, always falls in the cycle of Torah reading that tells of the enslavement in Egypt of the Jewish people and their subsequent liberation.
Black clergy and religious laity of the 1960’s saw the biblical story of the Exodus as the paradigm for their own struggle for liberation from bias and second-class citizenship – the residue of their enslavement in America. They sought a Moses who could lead them into the promised land of social, economic and political equality. For many, the anticipated liberator emerged in the person of Martin Luther King Jr.
King came to public prominence as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in January 1957. Just eleven years later, on April 4, 1968, having led a civil rights revolution in America and being a Nobel Prize laureate, he was assassinated.
During his lifetime King was a favorite of Jewish leadership, and no wonder: He was a strong supporter of Israel and other Jewish causes. Early in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, in November 1963, he raised his voice and said, “I cannot stand idly by as an American Negro and not be concerned about what happens to my brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia. For their problem is my problem.”
Despite the emergence in the mid-1960’s of significant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic voices among younger black leaders, King struggled to sustain the alliance between blacks and Jews, and to encourage support of Israel within the black community. He recognized early on that professed anti-Zionism was just a cover for deeper malevolence.
My personal involvement with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement was most intense in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama. King had issued a call for help in the last stages of a voter registration drive for blacks in Selma and for participants in the projected march from Selma to Montgomery.
The preceding months had seen an escalation of Southern resistance to civil rights demonstrations and an increase in violence – including the murders of Jimmy Lee Jackson and Reverend James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Detroit. Prior attempts at a march from Selma to Montgomery had been stopped by Alabama State Troopers who attacked the marchers with whips, dogs and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire.
I was then the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, California. I explained to the congregation why I felt impelled by Torah to join in this civil rights effort.
After we learn, in Parshat Shemot, that Moshe was in fact nursed and raised by his mother Yocheved before being returned to the daughter of Pharaoh, the Torah tells us three short stories about Moshe and injustice that help us understand why he will eventually become the liberator and leader of the Jewish people.
First, Moshe, a bystander, intervenes to rescue a fellow Jew by killing an Egyptian taskmaster. Then he intervenes a second time in a dispute that is not his, to separate two Jews, one of whom is about to strike the other.
In consequence of that second intervention, Moshe is compelled to flee Egypt, and ends up wandering in the Midianite desert. There he comes upon yet a third instance of injustice as shepherds prevent the daughters of Yitro from watering their flocks.
Moshe understands that even though none of the parties to this conflict are Jews, and that he could stand aside and not risk being accused of having caused the evil, his Jewish responsibility is to do what he can to prevent the perpetration of injustice.Rabbi Saul J. Berman