A Lesson from Moses to Martin Luther King Jr.

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During my childhood, I never understood why I found myself needing to adapt differently depending on which parent I was walking with: my black mother, or my white father. But then the stares grew longer, the presumptuous comments and questions never seemed to fall-short of an insult, and well, as a family we learned to know when to guard, deflect or just turn around and walk out the door.

It’s one thing when an individual discriminates against you, but it’s whole other thing when it’s a group or community. When a community, organization or country perpetuate distant values of discrimination, it sticks, and becomes a part of who you are, your DNA.

“And He (Pharoah) said to his nation: ‘behold the nation of the Children of Israel they are larger and stronger than us, come let us devise a plan to outsmart them with trickery and deception.’ (Exodus 1:9)”

This verse always reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous words: “We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal.” King’s letter, written from the Birmingham jail cell during the 1960’s challenges the reader to not only speak up against the individual who displays hateful behavior, but to note that just because an institution does something “legally,” it doesn’t make it right.

When we go to the big picture it is not just Joseph and the sibling strife that led to a cry which still murmurs today. When we shift from the individual to the big picture the power and damage is amplified. That is what happen when a new Pharaoh rose us in Egypt, just 3300 years ago.

It’s the pain of collective estrangement that causes collective enslavement. It is society’s of silence that do not condemn their citizens behavior that cause the breakdown of moral justice and civil liberties. Pharoah tells
his entire nation
and no one speaks up. Freedom was lost…until someone spoke up.

According to Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (12th Century-Girona, Spain) “he went out to his brothers,” meaning he realized what his household (the home of Pharoah in which Moses grew up) had done, and to which ancestry (Abraham) he truly belonged to. Moses takes stage in the public sphere once it becomes known to him that his home was the center of institutionalized discrimination, and that he was a member of both parties: the oppressors and the oppressed! It was then that the Exodus began. Though this week’s Torah portion shows us reinstilled leadership directed by the elders and the heads of tribes, it was Moses’s simple action to leave his home that brought about physical, spiritual and moral freedom.

Could I have said something when I was a little boy and my ancestry was called into question? Sure, but you could have also. But each of the individual Jews in my community could have been the Moses for us, and you still can be. Learn from Moses. Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King. Speak up, for once you begin to speak, you create the opportunity for even a sea to split.

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Posted on January 14, 2015

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