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Human Dignity and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, concludes the Torah’s recording of the enslavement and liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian oppression by the Almighty, God. Pharaoh had been adamant in his refusal to heed the request of Moshe. We wonder why Pharaoh allowed the devastation of his kingdom that culminated with his army drowning in the Reed Sea. After all, what was Moshe asking of Pharaoh?

A careful reading of the Torah shows Moshe’s request was in fact very modest. All that Moshe asked from Pharaoh was that the Jews to be allowed a three day respite from work, to travel into the wilderness, to celebrate and bring offerings to Hashem, the creator of all mankind. (Shemot 5:3)

Contrary to the common notion, Moshe did not ask Pharaoh for a complete emancipation of the Jews. All Moshe was asking from Pharaoh was for the Jews to be afforded the basic human dignity of worshipping God. Interesting also to note is that Moshe, under God’s instruction, held this condition could be met even without their total release from servitude.

Over decades of life in America, the Black civil rights movement spawned a dynamic leader and articulate spokesman, the reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He, as well as many of his followers and supporters, looked to Moshe for inspiration. He studied the Bible for lessons in morality and ethics. He, along with fellow clergymen and congregants active in the Black civil rights movement, identified in various ways with the oppression of the Jews depicted in the book of Shemot. One their most familiar and poignant spirituals was the song, “Let my people go.” This refrain is repeated throughout the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh.

Modeling himself in part on the character of Moshe, Dr. King courageously preached, taught, and inspired others to put into action the words of our Torah, ויברא ה’ את האדם בצלמנו בצלם ה’ ברא אותו זכר ונקבה ברא אותם,   “And God created mankind in His image; in the image of God, He created him, male and female He created them.” This verse does not specify or single out any one race, ethnicity or gender as being more equal (which is logically impossible), better or above any other in the essence of its humanness, “created in the image of God.” Could the equality, then, in the creation of mankind, male and female, be stated any more clearly?! It is for this one idea, the most cherished of all human values expressed by our Torah, that Dr. King ultimately gave his life.

A significant corollary of ethical behavior stems from this fundamental principle of our Torah: דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה, “proper conduct precedes, comes before Torah.”  Actions or words that discriminate between the value and dignity afforded to one individual or group versus another is a serious violation of our Jewish law, our ethics and our philosophy of life. Even having this attitude or mental outlook is nothing less than a degradation of God. Why? Simply put, it is patently false and a denial of God’s word.

As Jews, we are all too familiar with the ugliness and cruelty stemming from discrimination. This treatment has come upon us not only here in America but throughout the world wherever we have lived. But our Torah also repeatedly admonishes us, “Remember that you were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” These words obligate us not only in the performance of specific commands and mitzvot, but they demand we stand up for human rights and the dignity of all people regardless of their religious affiliation, ethnicity, race or gender. If we are to truly fulfill our mission as אור לגוים, we must shed every vestige of prejudice.

In merit of fulfilling our most fundamental mitzvah, to uphold the dignity of all mankind, may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan