G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is amongst the most complicated verses in the Hebrew Bible. And we read it this week.
This is the weekend when we observe two birthdays. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. They are forever linked.
What are we to learn from these two great men? Like the Israelites, they were on a journey. Like us, that journey is not complete.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was an immigrant. He was one of the lucky ones. Let in to this country after the Nazis deported him in 1938. Not all of his immediate family was so lucky. He was rescued. Saved. And we as a people and as a nation are better for it.
Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school sponsored this Orthodox rabbi. Jewish Theological Seminary wound up employing him. I dream of writing a paper comparing Heschel’s style to that of Emerson and Thoreau. His command of English and the eloquence of his writing is what makes him so accessible to so many—Jewish and non-Jewish, seekers of many faiths. That. And his living out his faith, his values and his ethics so completely. He made Judaism relevant again to many.
It is not just me saying that. On May 24, 2012, United States Senator Brown, of Ohio, lauded Hebrew Union College’s rescue of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel into the Congressional Record.
Martin Luther King and Heschel met in Chicago at a conference on Race and Religion. Here is the introduction to Heschel’s speech:
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.”
That was January 14, 1963. I imagine that the two of them then went out to have a beer to celebrate their birthdays, which in Chicago they could do. We know that they became fast friends. We know that when Martin Luther King quoted Amos, he was using Heschel’s translation. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Sometimes, it seems that first summit on race and religion is still incomplete.
It is still unsafe for African Americans to walk across college campuses. One only needs to point to Charlottesville this year.
Sometimes I wonder if we will ever get to that day of which Heschel and King dreamed.
As we approach this Martin Luther King Weekend in 2018, Heschel’s words need repeating:
“You cannot worship God, and then look at a human being, created by God in God’s own image, as if he or she were an animal.”
This is the idea that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of G-d. Everyone. Just like the U46 Mission statement says. All means all.
For months and months and month, years actually I have worked on the Martin Luther King Commission. You may ask why? Why is that important to Jews? We know Heschel marched with King. But that was then. Why now?
Because it is what Jews do. It is what rabbis do.
To quote Edmund Flegg, who I quote often, even at the rally here in Elgin after Charlottesville,
“I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.”
Heschel was not the only rabbi. It is hard to get an exact number and it is hard to know who to count. A few years ago on a different Martin Luther King weekend we went to see the movie Selma. It was a good movie. And important movie. Yet, we were shocked. It didn’t have any rabbis in it. So Simon, my husband, my social action partner, started to build a list. There are at least 35 and 3 rabbinical students. He thinks the number could be as high as 70.
They represent every movement of Judaism. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Hillel rabbis, congregational rabbis, scholars and professors.
Those rabbis who heeded King’s call are my heroes. Then and now. They put their lives and sometimes their livelihoods on the line. Some of them received considerable push-back from fellow Jews. Why should we rock the boat? There were still quotas. There were places that Jews were not welcome as hotel guests or country clubs or law firms or hospitals or colleges. Shouldn’t we direct our activism to Jewish causes not general ones? Al Vorspan, the Senior Vice President of the Union of Reform Judaism said, “Many of their congregations were on the verge of firing them for it. I personally went to several congregations threatening to fire their rabbis and told them it would be a ‘chilul Hashem’ a discretion of G-d’s name.”
Yet they went. Many, like Rabbi William Frankel from Wilmette, with their board’s approval. They understood the deep connection between our history of being strangers in a strange land, between being slaves in Egypt and the African-American history of being slaves. There is a deep connection between racism and anti-semitism. These experiences forever link our people and demand our action as Jews.
My heroes today are the people I serve with on the Elgin Martin Luther King Commission. Month in and month out, they strive to make sure that King’s message of creating a beloved community is one that we in the City of Elgin live out. That dream is one of inclusivity and mutual respect. One that recognizes that our diversity is a strength. One that helps us take care of the most marginalized amongst us as we once again collect food for the seventh annual Martin Luther King City Wide Food Drive. One that helps all people not just survive but thrive. They carry on King and Heschel’s dream.
And I serve, because quite frankly, it makes our lives as Jews safer here in Elgin.
But sadly, on this Martin Luther King Weekend, that dream seems to be slipping away as a nation, and we as a nation and as Jews are poorer for it. And we, as Jews, need to use our power and our voices to speak out.
We started this discussion with a puzzle. How is it that G-d who gave us free will, hardened Pharaoh’s heart? The classical Jewish commentators do not have answers. They don’t even seem to be much bothered by it. They seem to conclude that because Pharaoh is evil, there was nothing G-d could do. Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Pharaoh was being stubborn. Each time he called the Israelites back, it would be harder and harder for him to do teshuvah, to turn back. Really? This answer has never satisfied me. This is the same G-d who told Abraham and Sarah that nothing is impossible for G-d? This is the same G-d who says the gates of repentance are always open?
My own thesis advisor, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Zlotowitz, of blessed memory, does a round-up of the commentators in an article of the Academy for Jewish Religion Journal he used to edit. He concludes, standing at the pyramids, that
“God wanted to prove that Pharaoh was not a god but a human being, just like his people. If he were truly a god and omnipotent, then he could loosen his heart which God had hardened. But if he were unable to do so, he was not a god and the Egyptians would know that the Lord is God.”
“That the Egyptians would know that the Lord is G-d.” Sometimes it seems we are all just so stubborn. Sometimes it seems our leaders are just like Pharaoh and so stubborn. King wrote in Strength to Love, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Perhaps the anecdote is in our Amidah, the central portion of our service. We pray as part of the Amidah, V’taher libeinu, l’avdecha b’emeth. Cleanse our hearts that we might serve You in truth. May it melt our hardened hearts, our stubbornness away.
My colleague, Rabbi Larry Karol in Las Cruces, NM reminded us this week that while G-d appears to harden Pharaoh’s stubborn heart, the portion is named, Va’era, And G-d appeared. G-d appeared in order to offer hope. To offer a promise. Four promises. The promises of the four cups of wine at the Passover seder.
I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians
I will deliver you from their bondage.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.
It is a hopeful, upbeat message.
The people of Israel were not ready to hear the message. They were stubborn too. They were weighed down, burdened with a Kotzer Ruach, a short spirit. Caused by years of being slaves, years of being oppressed, years of being told they were no good, less than human. They needed to learn that there was another way of being.
When I arrived in Elgin, this congregation already had a strong observance of celebrating Martin Luther King, jr,s legacy. We would invite one of the local gospel choirs to enrich our worship. And that was good but it didn’t go far enough. To only talk of racism or King one day a year would not effect the positive change that we need to make as a society. To pretend that it doesn’t exist the rest of the year is a luxury we can’t afford. So I found ways for me to involved personally. People wondered why I would go to Ferguson. Because I was asked to go, like those rabbis so long ago. Because it’s what rabbis do. People wondered why I would give up a night I don’t have a synagogue meeting to go to King meeting. Because I was asked. Because it is what’ rabbis do.
Leaders arise. Leaders who understand the message of optimism and hope. Leaders who understand the message of Exodus, of King, of Heschel. Leaders like Ron Raglin and Traci Ellis, nominated for this year’s Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award. Leaders like Mayor Kaptain and Danise Habun. Like Pastors Lois Boucher, Dave Daubert, Paris Donohue, Nat Edmounds, Jeff Mikyska, Katie Shaw Thompson, Denise Tracy, all of whom we have partnered with this year. Leaders at CKI too, like Maureen who is at the prayer breakfast this morning praying for unity and Gareth and Joy helping to organize next week’s Elgin Standing Together event. Leaders who teach our children how to bring food for the Martin Luther King City Wide Food Drive and then help them load the cars to deliver the food. Those are the next generation of leaders. Leaders who expect me as their rabbi to be a moral compass, even if it isn’t always popular. Because it is what rabbis do.
The message we all need to hear from the Exodus and from King and Heschel and 35 other brave rabbis, is that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And G-d rescued us. And loved us. That we are all created in the image of G-d. That G-d demands that we welcome and love the stranger amongst us. That we never, ever forget what it means that we were slaves.
I pray that we find the courage, the conviction to not become stubborn like Pharaoh. I pray that justice rolls down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream. I pray we find a way to actualize King’s dream, Heschel’s vision, G-d’s promise. Come journey with me.