My remarks at this morning’s MLK Unity Service at Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore, PA:
Good morning – as you know it’s always morning at Zion Baptist Church; no matter what the clock says!
Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet ahim gam yahad – How good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell together. We’ve been coming together in unity and fellowship for many years now, more than thirty, to celebrate Dr. King’s rich legacy and to commit ourselves to carrying that legacy forward together in our place and in this moment.
To focus our attention on that sacred task, I’d like to explore a famous Bible passage with you. You’ve already heard these words from the book of Exodus. Now let’s take a look at them together.
Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing that there was no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well. [Exodus 2:11-15]
Let’s home in on the phrase ‘witnessed their labors’. The Hebrew matters on this one – וירא בסבלתם – literally ‘he saw their sufferings’. Hebrew words have three letter roots; the root of the word translated as suffering or labors is samekh, bet, lamed which also means ‘to bear’ or ‘to carry’. Hang on to that meaning; I’ll come back to it in a few minutes.
First, let’s talk about ‘seeing’. Moses sees the suffering, the burden, the labors of the Hebrew slaves. What does it mean to see another’s burden?
Rashi, one of the great medieval Bible commentators, gets to the inside of Moses’ seeing…
וירא בסבלתם And he witnessed their labors — ‘he gave his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them’. [Rashi on Exodus 2:11]
Moses, in other words, feels the pain of the slaves whose suffering he witnesses. Contemporary Bible scholar Aviva Zornberg puts it this way: “Moses’ first significant act of maturity is an act of empathy with those who seem, physically, socially, and existentially, so different from him.” Their distress is his distress; their burden is his burden, one that he will now carry with them. Zornberg describes it as “vulnerable empathy” and “complex empathy”. It’s powerful stuff.
[Sandro Botticelli ‘Trials of Moses’, Sistine Chapel, 1490]
The contrast is to the way Pharaoh ‘sees’. Pharaoh observes the growth of the Israelite population and he sees a threat to his own well being. And he invites, even commands, fellow Egyptians to ‘see’ in much the same way. Hear his edict to the midwives – Shifra and Puah – “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool (u’r’eetem ‘al ha-avanim): if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” “Pharaoh’s was a seeing of disjunction and difference,” writes Zornberg. I see you as Other, as an ‘It’ not a ‘Thou’, as a threat to me, not as a sister or brother crying out for my care and attention. Pharaoh’s seeing divides; Moses’ seeing connects.
The Midrash – the running commentary of the ancient rabbis – gives us more.
What is, “And [he] saw?” For he would look upon their burdens and cry and say, “Woe is me unto you, who will provide my death instead of yours, for there is not more difficult labor than the labor of the mortar.”
Moses’s seeing brings him to tears, literally…And those tears will lead him to act. His first act is to get in there and share the slaves’ burden.
“And he would give of his shoulders [i.e. use his shoulders to] assist each one of them.”
One of Moses’ concerns is unfairness.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: [If] he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person, or a man’s burden on a woman and a woman’s burden on a man, or an elderly man’s burden on a young man and a young man’s burden on an elderly man, he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh. The Holy One of Blessing said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. I will leave aside the upper and the lower [i.e. ignore the distinction between Heaven and Earth] and talk to you. Such is it written, ” And when the LORD saw that [Moses] turned aside to see” (Exodus 3:4). The Holy One of Blessing saw Moses, who left aside his business to see their burdens. Therefore, “God called unto him out of the midst of the bush”. [Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:27]
I love that line in the middle: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act.
אַתָּה הִנַּחְתָּ עֲסָקֶיךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ לִרְאוֹת בְּצַעֲרָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְנָהַגְתָּ בָּהֶן מִנְהַג אַחִים
That’s complex, vulnerable empathy at work – the pure gaze of brothers and sisters toward and with one another.
[Dura Europos Synagogue, Western Wall, Scenes from the life of Moses, 2nd century]
Only now does Moses strike down the Egyptian taskmaster whom he ‘sees’ beating a Hebrew slave. He sees, says Zornberg, “the axis of difference now running between those who inflict cruelty and those who suffer it”. “This third ‘seeing’ conveys the unavoidable responsibility to act on the basis of a complex empathy.”
Seeing the burden, the struggle, the suffering of an other who is really a sister or brother, seeing, that is, with ‘vulnerable empathy’, gives rise to an ‘unavoidable responsibility to act’. I can’t allow myself to carry your burden and then just go about my business. I actually have to do something about it; I have an ‘unavoidable responsibility to act’. Moses is the model and his story is both an invitation and a challenge to us. Do we really see one another? And do we ‘allow ourselves to be affected’ by another’s suffering?
Dr. King’s own words offer us the same piece of encouragement and the same profound challenge.
In a sense every day is judgment day, and we, through our deeds and words, our silence and speech, are constantly writing in the Book of Life. Light has come into the world, and every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” [Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Three Dimensions of a Complete Life’ in Strength to Love (1963)]
Moses shares the burden with others, sisters and brothers, whose suffering he ‘sees’. He also blows his top, reacts violently to what he has seen and felt, and kills an Egyptian taskmaster. He’s angry, and with good reason, but maybe the kind of anger that Moses exhibits isn’t the best response in such a moment. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Jaffe, calls this kind of a moment one of ‘Creative Discomfort’ and it’s not simple. We’ve all seen expressions of this kind of hot, explosive anger in our lives and in the world around us, and there’s something very satisfying about it. It’s also dangerous; rage explodes, all too easily, into hate and violence.
Rabbi Jaffe suggests that there’s more than one kind of anger – the hot anger that he describes as ‘that sweet, satisfying feeling at having “gotten it all off your chest” and a cold “anger that is focused and deep and rooted in grief” and whose purpose and goal is that of ‘setting things right’. The key to cultivating that kind of anger is a character trait – an attribute of both the divine and the human personality – called savlanut. Remember our little Hebrew lesson from a few minutes ago? Moses saw the burdens of the Hebrew slaves – וירא בסבלתם. That same Hebrew root – samekh, bet, lamed – gives us the word savlanut. Savlanut is the ability and willingness to bear another’s burden along with that person and to stay in it with them for the long haul. For that reason it’s sometimes translated as patience, but ‘bearing’ is a better description. And staying in it is the hard part.
So let’s talk about that long haul for a bit. We’ve been joining together in fellowship for three decades. The story of African-American struggle began in 1619, four hundred years ago, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of Virginia. And there have been so many sign posts along the way, a number of which have already been spoken of this morning: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, two spots I had the opportunity to visit in this past year, places of pilgrimage that mark this long struggle. Just a few weeks ago, as part of a group of local clergy people, I spent a morning at SCI Phoenix, a maximum security state prison not far from here. There we met with men already incarcerated for ten, twenty, thirty years, in order to hear from them about ‘restorative justice’ and their future hopes and dreams. Some of them did truly terrible things; some of them were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a broken system and we have a lot of work to do together. And what a year it has been for Jews in America. You all know the details; the place names suffice to call up the horror and the strugge: Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey. There’s a great deal of burden for us to bear.
The words of my friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs: “When I was younger, I had a sense that we needed to fix everything now. If we could just stay up all night seven days a week, we could fix everything. Now I know it is a marathon, and an election is every four years.”
And the words of scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow which was published a decade ago, writing in this morning’s New York Times: “The centuries-long struggle to birth a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy – a nation in which every voice and every life truly matters – did not begin with us. The struggle is as old as the nation itself and the birth process has been painful, to say the least. My hope and prayer is that we will serve as faithful midwives in our lifetimes and do what we can to make America, finally, what it must become”.
And, finally, Dr. King himself, in 1963, words penned in his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
We’re here to see – really see – one another’s struggle and to put our shoulders into one another’s burden; we’re here to practice savlanut – holy forbearance – together; we’re in it for the long haul; we’re here to serve alongside one another – sisters and brothers – as ‘faithful midwives’ to help birth a better, more hopeful, more just tomorrow. That’s the work, nothing more, nothing less.
So, to borrow Dr King’s ringing words – will we walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness? And how will each of us answer that most persistent and urgent question with which life challenges us? What, indeed, is each of us doing – today, tomorrow, everyday – for others?”
This is the question. This is the judgement. God bless you all.
Watch the whole service here –
courtesy of Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore’s facebook page