Torah Reading for Week of January 15-21, 2012
“Moses, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel: Voices of Moral Authority”
By Rabbi Toba August, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics and Tanach
It is a curious coincidence that ‘Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day’ – is the week of Parshat Va’era. Additionally, the birthday of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was the week before for Parshat Shemot.
These two Parshiyot, the first and second of the book of Exodus, begin the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh and parallel the Civil Rights movement’s challenge to the intransigent power of the southern states’ Jim Crow laws in the 1960’s.
Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, the two men who marched together, though so different, were joined in a spiritual friendship sharing a vision of possibility and change.
In much of their writing both King and Heschel used imagery from the Exodus narrative to confront bigotry and oppressive racism. They both believed, as we hear Moses proclaiming in our Parsha, that G-d demands a high level of moral behavior – that all people are free.
In 1963 at a national conference, Heschel said that “…the tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt….would that they had joined together at the foot of Sinai…”
And King said, “…to accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system…Your highest loyalty is to G-d and not to the mores, or folkways, the state or the nation, or any human-made institution…”
These beliefs are reflected in our Torah reading and are underscored in a mystical interpretation of the 10 plagues.
In his essay, “Ten Ways to Destroy Your Life,” Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson explains that the 10 plagues parallel the 10 Sefirot in reverse sequence.
For example, Blood, the first plague, is Malchut, (Kingship) as Pharaoh believed it was he who created the Nile River, the life force of Egypt. This “confidence” was the source of brutal exploitation of the ancient Israelites, and Moses’ ability turning the Nile into blood refuted the notion that Pharaoh was its creator.
Frogs, the second plague, are cold-blooded creatures who give no parental protection to their offspring. They are Yesod (Foundation) which represents the opposite of “bonding” – of experiencing emotional intimacy. The frogs symbolized Egypt’s cold heartedness and lack of compassion.
Though I only presented two examples, I am struck by how relevant these images are for us today just as they were for the Civil Rights movement years ago.
If we know that there is a source of moral authority within each of us, then we are obligated to work through the “plagues” which distort and corrupt. Misguided confidence and exerting power over those less fortunate, being apathetic and indifferent to the suffering around us, are just two examples of our inner selves which both Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel exhorted us to fight against, and which Moses and Aaron confronted with Pharaoh.
May our learning give us courage to act like Moses, King and Heschel, being agents for healing and justice in our world. Amen