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Where do we get the strength?

01/17/2021 02:38:24 PM


This blog post is adapted from a sermon delivered during Temple Israel’s Shabbat services on January 15.  During the service, someone informed me that our website was not functioning, and he was unable to view us on the live stream. Later we learned that our website had been affected as part of a cyber attack aimed at disrupting the Shabbat services at The Temple in Atlanta, where newly elected U.S. Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock was speaking in honor of MLK Day.  Here is an adaption of the words I spoke on Shabbat Tzedek, the Shabbat of Righteousness, recently established by the Reform movement in honor of MLK day. 

In August of 2019, I stood with fifty other Reform rabbis, as we crowded into a small house in Montgomery, Alabama. We were on a guided tour through the modest home in which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and his family lived when he was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

I stood near the black rotary dial phone sitting on a crocheted doily on a phone stand in the hallway.  Our guide told us that Dr. King used to receive hateful, threatening calls late at night. Dr. King had become a leader in the Montgomery bus boycott, the one sparked by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat for a white man.

Our guide in Dr. King’s house said that when he answered these hateful and threatening calls, he would often respond by saying “I will pray for you.”

The threats of violence against Dr. King were not empty ones. His house was bombed on January 30, 1956, one month after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. 

Dr. King was not home at the time.  He was speaking at a large meeting elsewhere in Montgomery.  When he heard of the bombing, Dr. King rushed home.  There he found a group of angry people, many from his congregation, and some carrying arms, ready to defend Dr. King.  

After checking on the safety of his family, Dr. King addressed the crowd in front of his house.
He said:  "If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek them. We cannot solve this problem through violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence." 

The crowd dispersed peacefully after Dr. King assured them, "Go home and don't worry. We are not hurt, and remember, if anything happens to me there will be others to take my place." (Source:  Equal Justice Initiative)

I have often asked myself: Where did Dr. King get the strength? Where did he get the strength to keep going after hearing the threatening phone calls, and after the bombing at his house? Where did he get the strength to turn away from revenge?
One of Dr. King’s former parishioners recalled that he would tell his congregation, “We must love our neighbor. We must love our white neighbors, even when they do not love us back.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is, of course, a quotation from the Torah, the same words above our ark at Temple Israel. It is a quote repeated in Christian scripture.  

So much of Dr. King’s strength was rooted in his faith. 

Faith also motivated Temple Israel’s rabbi emeritus, Michael Robinson, to answer Dr. King’s request to travel with other Reform rabbis to Saint Augustine, Florida in June 1964. They went to Saint Augustine to take part in ongoing demonstrations in support of the Civil Rights Act.  In Saint Augustine, they faced angry crowds wielding baseball bats and shouting profanities. The rabbis were arrested and jailed after conducting a prayer service as part of the demonstration.

While in jail, they wrote a letter explaining why they went.  In the letter, they affirm that they went to Saint Augustine despite the threats of violence and certain arrest “in fulfillment of our faith."   

When we hear the word “faith,” we might define it as “belief,” with holding a particular belief about God and the way God works in the world. That kind of faith is reflected in statements like: “God will provide.”   

Those who can embrace that belief can draw strength from it – the strength necessary to face hateful speech and angry mobs.

But what about those who cannot believe in a personal God?  Can agnostics and atheists draw on the strength that faith can provide?

I think the answer is yes. Faith does not only mean belief in God. To have faith is to have confidence or trust in someone or something. And that someone or something does not have to be “God.” 

We can have faith in the power of history. Our people have a long history.  Out of their human experiences and struggles they created a body of sacred texts that can still resonate with us today:  The Torah, writings of the prophets, the poetry of the Psalms, the books of wisdom, the teachings and commentary of our sages. In these texts we can recognize our own human concerns and struggles; from the experiences of our ancestors, we can seek guidance for our own path.

And there is also our recent history of suffering. The rabbis jailed in Saint Augustine wrote in their letter: “We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

We can have faith in the power of community, in the strength that comes in connecting with others both in our present and our past. The rabbis jailed in Saint Augustine wrote: "How many a Torah reading, Passover celebration, prayer book text, and sermonic effort has come to mind in these hours. And how meaningful has been our worship, morning and evening, as we recited the ancient texts in this new, yet Jewishly familiar, setting. We are particularly grateful for what we have received from our comrades in this visit. We have been sustained by the understanding, thoughtfulness, consideration and good humor we have received from each other. Never have the bonds of Judaism and the fellowship of the rabbinate been more clearly expressed to us all or more deeply felt by each of us."

We can have faith in the power of history, and we can have faith in the power of community. 

And, finally, we can have faith in the power of goodness.

We can have faith in the power of goodness that we can bring into the world, goodness that I have seen manifest in actions of love and grace and kindness, actions large and small, from standing up for the rights of those who are oppressed to a kind word spoken to one who is grieving. I have witnessed the power of goodness, and it is worthy of our faith.

After the bombing of his house, Dr. King sent the angry crowd ready to defend him home with these words: "If anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place."  

This Shabbat we honor Dr. King’s memory.  As we remember him and the many others who sacrificed so much in the name of justice and equality, we ask ourselves:  how will we stand with those who carry on this work? 

On this Shabbat Tzedek, this Shabbat of Righteousness, I am grateful for the faith that sustained them, and that sustains me, as our work of tikkun – repair – continues.

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782