In April 1963, Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been leading sit-ins and marches, which were “conveniently” made illegal after he arrived in town. Shortly after he was arrested, a number of white clergymen, pastors, bishops, and yes, a rabbi, wrote an open letter denouncing the protests. In a response written on paper that was smuggled into jail, King wrote what became known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
There are many themes in that letter but there is one that I would like to highlight, and that is tension. Martin Luther King was a big proponent of tension. To quote a few lines from that letter: “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not …the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
He continues, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
You see, Martin Luther King dreamt of a world filled with tension; filled with people of different faiths and different countries, with convictions that were certainly worth dying for. A world in which ideas are debated and discussed and ultimately, resolved. Not a world where apathy reigns supreme; where we just shrug our indifferent shoulders and scroll on to the next item. No, Martin Luther King’s utopian dream was one of peace, but not of the passive kind. It was peace that was filled to the brim with friction and justice.
Now, Martin Luther King, as you all know, was heavily influenced by the Bible, by the Torah. His prose in many places are paraphrases of the prophets. And of course, of all the Biblical narratives, it is the story of the Exodus – this week’s Parsha, what Zach just read from the Torah, that influenced so much of the soul of the civil rights movement.
One thing that I find a little challenging about the Exodus narrative is the morality Ten Plagues. You know, it’s not like G-d needed the ten plagues to force Pharaoh’s hand to get the Jewish People out of Egypt. He’s G-d after all! He could’ve just taken the Jewish People out of Egypt… We didn’t need Moshe to come back to the palace time and time again only to hear, “No, no, no I will not let them go!” And we didn’t need all the Egyptian people suffering like they did. Yes, there was an educational element for the Jewish People to witness G-d’s power, but we are a peace-loving people. Oseh shalom bimromov, G-d is a G-d of peace. What’s going on here? What is the real purpose for the drawn-out drama of the ten plagues?
Perhaps – who knows for sure, but perhaps G-d wanted tension. Perhaps leaving Egypt without any tension would have been peaceful! But it would be a negative peace, sorely lacking justice. And the truth is this is precisely what G-d tells Abraham a few hundred years prior, when He lays out a vision of the slavery and the subsequent Exodus. “Your children” G-d say, “will be slaves in a foreign country, and I will then take them out. V’gam es hagoy asher ya’avodu, and in regards to the nation that enslaves them, dan anochi, I will judge them!” Justice and confrontation was always an integral part of the plan.
And so – Moshe is sent to Pharaoh, to engage him in debate. And plague after plague, the Egyptian belief system is challenged, from the supremacy of the Nile to the inborn holiness of the firstborn, every one of their ideas is put to the test. And then, and only then, is the Exodus complete.
It is complete because it came about through the clash of two worldviews that were forced to confront one another. The exodus was complete because those who were guilty were punished and those who weren’t were saved. Tension, G-d was teaching us, is not to be avoided, it is to be welcomed. It is important, it is crucial.
And Zach, I think this is a very relevant lesson for you. Because Zach, you have been blessed, you really have. You have awesome parents. They are adored by so many people in this room and beyond, and for good reason. They are kind, they are principled, and they are earnest. Your parents are community-minded; despite their busy professional lives they have both been and are incredibly active in the shul…
… you’ve been blessed with amazing talents – you’re a great actor, you’re a cook, you’re an exceptionally talented writer, I’ve seen up close at our Bar Mitzvah program how you’re a natural leader, you’re articulate, you’re intelligent.
But here’s the deal, Zach – you could close your eyes right now, with all that support and all those talents, and you can just coast to success in life. Because you won the lottery. Great family, great DNA, great talents. It’s all there for you to coast on. You could lead a successful life without having to try all that hard. Really.
But if you do so, while you may succeed, you will also be failing. Because if the Exodus taught us one thing, it is that a life without tension is not worth living, it is not a life. Some people’s role in life is to overcome tension and some people’s role in life is to find that tension. Because the truth is, the tension is always there. Only that some people are given the opportunity to ignore it. But when we do so, when we coast in life, when our objective is just to get by, just to be decent, just to relax, we do so at our own peril.
To quote Dr. King once again: “We… are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
What he says about racism, is true about so much else. The tension is there; we get to choose if we want to bring it to the fore.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Judaism and what it is that excites me about it. I love our traditions, our faith, I really do. Those of you who know me, know that. The typical reasons that I hear from other people who love Judaism are things like, the serenity of Shabbat, the warmth of community, or the comfort of tradition. And I’ll be honest, none of that talks to me. They’re nice, but they’re not compelling. You know what is? You know what I realized really gets me?
The idea that every day I am blessed with waking up I need to justify my existence, that yesterday’s success is not a hook on which to hang my future, that if I’m not growing then I’m not living.
The Jewish idea that we are to never accept the status quo and we are to challenge not only ourselves and all our convictions but also to question the world around us, the way things are run, questioning our leaders, and according to our faith, questioning even G-d Himself.
The fact that there are a lot of commandments in Judaism and yes, that could be overwhelming, but it also ensures that we are never there, that there’s always something to aspire to. It’s the tension of Judaism that excites me.
What the Exodus from Egypt, Yetziat Mitzrayim taught us is that the tension-filled life is the only life worth living. Rav Tzadok Hakohen, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, suggests that the Hebrew word for Egypt – Mitzrayim alludes to this very idea. Mitzrayim, he suggests, is made up of two words – MEITZAR which means a narrow place, and YAM, an ocean, the symbol of expansiveness. What our experience in Egypt, in Mitzrayim teaches us is that in order to experience any form of expansiveness, of freedom, of success, we need to first experience the straits, the tension, the friction of a challenged life.
And the beauty is that we are commanded to remember the Exodus every day of our life. That this drama is a never-ending cycle of friction and resolution; of unbelievable growth and then realizing that there’s still so much more to do.
That’s my blessing for you Zach, and really for all of us. That we live a good comfortable life, yes. But also, that we live a life of tension. That when we have a question, we don’t ignore it. We grapple with it, and we don’t move on until we’ve resolved it. That when we feel like we’ve made it, with our family life, with our connection to our faith, with our relationship to G-d, with our personal growth, that we realize that we’ve only just started, and we dig deep and we ask ourselves, what’s next? That we sensitize ourselves to hear that rumble and roar that emanates daily from our soul, thirsting for more and not being content with resting on our laurels.
May you, Zach, and may we all merit to experience our own personal Exodus, our own personal Yetziat Mitzrayim; both the Meitzar and the Yam, the tension and expansiveness, the friction and the freedom, every day of our lives. Mazel Tov!