51 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. led three marches between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. These marches were meant to highlight the social injustices against African-American citizens. Specifically, black Americans wanted to highlight the unconstitutional injustice of not being able to vote.
Spiritual leaders of all faiths joined Martin Luther King in that march. Many within our own Reform movement displayed courage, integrity and resolve in fighting for these rights. Our Religious Action Center in Washington DC was an important and central beacon during this watershed period.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of many prominent clergy that joined hands with Dr. King in 1965. The way I heard it, the march was on Shabbat, and Rabbi Heschel, an observant Jew, chose to go on the march rather than pray in shul. When criticized for his choice, Heschel responded, But I did pray today. My feet were praying.
On this Shabbat, and on all Shabbats, we also pray.
As we know from this book of Exodus, prayers are good. In fact, they are necessary ... but they are not sufficient. Not even close. We must continue the marches that leaders like Martin Luther King and Rabbi Heschel started. We must heed the command that repeats over and over again in our Torah: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. We remember not only to appreciate our freedom. We remember to help others achieve freedom.
In the 51 years since that march to Montgomery, our country has taken some steps that bend the arc of history toward justice. But as I reflect one week after MLK day, I worry that we is backsliding.
During the past year, blacks have continued to face oppression and discrimination. Tamar Rice, Ferguson, Eric Garner's plea, I can't breathe ... these incidents remind us that black lives matter. And yes, all lives matter. All lives are precious. But until we start to heal the social, economic and justice disparities that exist, we must stand hand-in-hand with our African American neighbors. Our feet must also pray.
Last weekend, many of us marched with our Muslim brothers and sisters, as we were welcomed into their mosque with peace, friendship and understanding. These efforts continue the legacy of Martin Luther King. I think upon a famous image from one of those Alabama marches, in which clergy are arm in arm in friendship. They are not separated by race, or by religion, they are unified - black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew.
Tonight we read from Yitro, one of only two Torah portions named for a non-Jew. Yitro was Moses' father-in-law. This portion contains the Ten Commandments, some of our holiest words in the Torah. It's fascinating that these sacred words are in a portion named for a non-Jew. But I like to think that Martin Luther King would have understood the beauty of this juxtaposition. As he taught, holiness comes from being in relationship with people that might seem different, that might seem to be 'other.' In this Torah portion, Moses develops as a leader because he listens to the advice of an 'other', Yitro. Our holiness also increases as we have relationships with others.
On this Shabbat, tonight, we will continue praying from the words in our prayerbook and thinking on the words in our Torah. But tomorrow, it's time to put the words down. It's time to march.