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Human Dignity and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In synagogue this Shabbat, we begin reading Sefer Shemot, ספר שמות. Over the next three weeks we will read the Torah’s historical account and record of the enslavement and eventual liberation of the Jewish people from the Egyptian oppression by God. The Torah vividly describes how Pharaoh remains adamant in his refusal to heed the many requests made by Moses who was acting as God’s agent for this mission. We wonder why Pharaoh, after witnessing repeated warnings and demonstrations, allowed for the devastation of his kingdom. After all, what was Moses asking of Pharaoh?

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

Contrary to the common notion, Moses did not ask Pharaoh for a complete emancipation of the Jews. All Moses was asking from Pharaoh was for the Jews to be afforded the basic human dignity of worshipping God. Interesting is that Moses, 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 Moses 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 many 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 was the same refrain repeated throughout the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

Modeling himself in part on the character of Moses, 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 ultimately, he 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, precisely because every human being is “created in the image of God.” Inherent, then, in every encounter with another person is an encounter with the “image of God.” Our Jewish law tells us that even in the treatment of a person being taken out for execution, as well as after the sentence is carried out, must be treated with dignity because of the “image of God” that person represents. How then could you not treat another person with the utmost respect even when at vehement odds with each other. Interesting to note, throughout all the confrontations with Pharoah, Moses never denigrates him as a human being.

It is not only with degrading actions that a violation occurs. Just having that superior/inferior attitude or mental outlook about another human being, race or ethnic group is nothing less than a 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 such as the Passover Seder, the Shabbat, how we treat people in our employment, but they demand and compel us to 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.

This Monday our nation celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I encourage all of us to take a moment and reflect on his work and accomplishments, the centerpiece of which comes directly from the words of our Torah and Prophets. His mission was on behalf of all human beings. It is truly worthy of our honor.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan