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Human Dignity and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week’s Torah portion, Va’eira, continues the story of the enslavement and liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian oppression by God. The Torah describes how Pharaoh remains adamant in his refusal to heed the many requests of Moshe. We wonder why Pharaoh allowed for the devastation of his kingdom. After all, what was Moshe asking of Pharaoh?

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

Contrary to the common notion, Moshe did not ask Pharaoh for the 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 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. They 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 of their most familiar and poignant spirituals was the song, “Let My People Go.” This refrain was 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, “All mankind is created in the image of God.” It is for this one idea, the most cherished and fundamental of all human values expressed by our Torah, that he ultimately gave his life.

Mistreating, abusing, or discriminating between the value, worthiness, or dignity afforded to one individual or group versus another is a serious violation of our Jewish law, our ethics, and our philosophy of life. Not only those actions but even having that attitude or mental outlook about another human being, racial or ethnic group is nothing less than the degradation of God’s name. We, as members of the Jewish people, are all too familiar with the ugliness and cruelty stemming from racial discrimination. This treatment has come upon us throughout the ages wherever we have lived.

Our Torah also repeatedly admonishes us, “Remember that you were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” These words not only obligate us 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 ethnicity or religious practice. It is this teaching that is the most enduring and significant in the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan