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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

January 15, 2021

Nachshons, Then and Now: MLK Day 2021

This Shabbat, this weekend, we honor the birthday and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s legacy is profound, enduring, and entirely present with us today. Against the backdrop of our biblical text, history, and the current moment where we find ourselves, we remember and celebrate King and the inheritors of his work today.

In these weeks, we find ourselves in the midst of our Exodus journey, the familiar story of our slavery in Egypt and our ultimate redemption by God, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam from Pharaoh’s cruel grasp. In a few weeks, in our biblical narrative, we will find ourselves on the shores of the sea, about to take our first steps into freedom, the moment commemorated by our Mi Chamocha prayer. While Moses and Miriam remain the best-known heroes of this moment, leading us forward in freedom and song, our Midrash teaches us that one person took a small step that changed the course of history: Nachshon ben Aminadav. As we read in Mekhilta d’Rabi Yishmael (14:22):

“When the tribes were standing at the sea, each of them said: I will not go down first into the sea, no, I will not be first.... Because they stood and deliberated, Nachshon the son of Aminadav leapt into the sea.

”Nachshon, a relative unknown, leapt first into the sea, and soon after, the waters parted for all. Nachshon, brave and bold, went first.

That journey from slavery to freedom, the Exodus narrative, is ancient for us, and is so much more recent and, indeed a present experience for Black people in America today. This weekend, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a Nachshon of the Civil Rights Movement and of his time. His leadership, bold actions, and speeches put him at the front of crowds and newspapers. He took those first steps into the waters of the sea of injustice.

Dr. King may have been the Nachshon of his movement, and he had many who marched proudly with him and after him into the sea. King inspired generations of activists and leaders. The deep ties he forged with Jewish leaders of the Civil Rights movement inspire our community in particular to this day. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of our foremost thinkers, marched with King at Selma, and is well-known to have said of the experience, “It was as if I were praying with my feet.” Like Nachshon, marching, unafraid into the sea, we continue to partner together to stand up for justice.

A few months ago, I spoke to you on the Friday night after the death of Representative John Lewis, who was one of the leading moral voices of the civil rights movement for decades. The youngest speaker at the March on Washington, and a key organizer of Selma March, and one of the inheritors of King’s legacy.

Our nation and our world have lost so many bold and brave leaders in the past year. However, the story continues, from King, to Lewis, to today. Just ten days ago, two disciples of Lewis were elected as senators from Georgia: Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Warnock was Lewis’s minister, and Ossoff was Lewis’s congressional intern. While we have lost King and Lewis, his intellectual and spiritual descendants will now serve together in the United States Senate. They broke barriers to do so, as the first Black and first Jewish senators from Georgia.

And in just five days, the first woman, Black, and Indian Vice President will be inaugurated on the steps of our Capitol: Kamala Harris. These three newly elected officials are Nachshon-figures of our day. And they are only some of the best known Nachshons out there right now - there are countless other activists and dreamers, taking a stand, stepping into rough waters when it is unpopular or unusual to do so. For those tireless and perhaps anonymous individuals, we are grateful today.

Of course, these moments of triumph and progress are bittersweet and at times overshadowed by the recent events in our nation, the armed insurrection and storming of that very same Capitol building. Anti-semitism and racism are decidedly among the motivations of those who joined that mob. These twin hatreds of Jews and Blacks is a chilling reminder that we are united in both our sorrows and our triumphs.

While we face many challenges today, we must be inspired by moments of hope and progress. As a Jewish community, we must remember our sacred relationship with all Black Americans today, continuing in the legacy of King and Heschel, Warnock and Ossoff. Our communities are diverse, multi-racial, interfaith, open, caring, and committed to justice. Let this Shabbat, this weekend be a reminder to heed King’s words, delivered to a group of Reform Jews assembled at our Biennial Convention in 1963:

“Human progress comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time itself becomes the ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of social stagnation and irrational emotionalism. We must help time and we must realize that the time is always right to do what is right.

”May we be co-workers with God, Nachshon’s in our own day. The time is always right to do what is right. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784