Since the time I wrote this drash (see below), I learned some “Torah” from Bishop Johnathan Logan Sr., with whom I shared the pulpit recently at a Candlelight Ceremony in Marin City in honor of Dr. King. I told him that some of my congregants felt this drash was a bit restrained, light of events in the U.S. last week. Some wanted me to outright condemn the words coming from the Oval Office.
When I shared this with him, he taught me the acronym “W.I.I.” or, “what it is.” Bishop Logan and I both know, “what it is.” And our job, as we see it, is to spread light. Continuing only to counteract the negative and to give additional airtime to it, is in some ways, to capitulate to the decline in values and hate we see around us. So I offer this drash in that spirit, to spread light and goodness through teaching Torah. Thank you to Rabbi Danny Nevins for inspiring me to share this drash, which I delivered in the Beit Knesset on January 13 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Each year, on Dr. Martin Luther King weekend, we find ourselves in the beginning, or in the middle, of our slavery saga in the book of Exodus – at the intersection between our millenia-old Torah reading cycle and Dr. King’s legacy.
A few years ago, the incredible film Selma, was released. It is the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic struggle to secure voting rights for all people – a dangerous and terrifying campaign that culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Early in the movie, there is a tense meeting. It’s January, 1965. On one side, there are pastors of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and on the other side, organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The students resent the intrusion of national leaders who lead protests and marches and then leave town. The pastors feel that the students are not making headway, and need more national support.
Dr. King and John Lewis, the now congressman and one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, work out an agreement: the two groups join together for the marches.
In the film, Dr. King (played brilliantly by David) asks the local organizers, “What kind of man is this local sheriff Jim Clark?”
He remembers that this sheriff once avoided confrontation and the organizers’ protests were ineffective. Will Jim Clark make the mistake of reacting violently to peaceful protest.
John Lewis said, “Yes, Sheriff Clark will respond with violence,” convincing King that Selma is the right place to advance the cause of voter registration for African Americans. The events of “bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when police and local bigots savagely beat John Lewis, march organizer Amelia Boynton and others, capture the attention of the nation and the world, leading to successively larger protests and then to President Johnson’s sponsorship of the Voting Rights Act one week later.
But 53 years later, we ask: Was all this violence and suffering was really necessary? What if Sheriff Jim Clark had not “made a mistake” and had instead left the protestors alone? If no one had been beaten, would the world have paid attention? Could we have reduced the racist barriers to voter registration without exposing the violent injustice that supported them? Were the injuries and even the deaths of these brave protestors necessary to shock the world, to soften the heart of a nation, and to correct an injustice?
We ask the same questions about our Torah portion—was the suffering of Israel, including brutal and lethal abuse at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters, a necessary stage for the redemption? And, the suffering of the Egyptians – plague after terrible plague?
The story tells us: the suffering was indeed instrumental. Israelites needed to suffer before becoming convinced that the affliction of slavery was intolerable, and that the risks of escape were worth bearing. Egyptians suffering lead to the realization that the enslavement of Israel was destroying their country. And perhaps even God had to witness Israel’s suffering, and even to experience their suffering, before the scales of justice and mercy would shift, allowing for a historic change, and redemption to follow.
Religious thinkers have long struggled over the utility of suffering. Was this extended saga helpful, and if so, then how?
The Hasidic master (Kalonymos Kalman HaLevi Epstein, Cracow, 1751-1823) Ma’or Va’Shemesh says Pharaoh and of his people had to suffer in order to unmask their true evil.
Throughout the plagues Pharaoh plays a game, making strategic retreats but quickly reverses himself and never lets go of his slaves. He is like the sheriff in Albany who avoided confrontation as a strategy to preserve an unjust status quo.
The word for “I have hardened,” [his heart] hikhbadati, has the same gematria (numerical value) as emet, or truth. So, God did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart, but really just showed the world how hard it was all along. It is as if God says, “Look world, the truth is, Pharoah is just evil.”
When Ma’or VaShemesh interprets these words in this way, he cleverly sidesteps a major theological problem: the idea that Pharaoh lacks free will. In other words, Pharoah is not a puppet with God pulling the strings. God does not direct Pharoah’s trajectory at all, rather God just points out what is real: Pharoah is evil.
He presented himself as reasonable and just, but the extended confrontation with Moses and the Israelites, forced him to reveal his true evil, just as the marches in Selma forced the Alabama authorities to reveal the hardness of their hearts. Egypt and Israel had to suffer in order to unmask the evil core of Pharaoh, and to set an example of resistance to tyranny for all time.
But another Hasidic master, (Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810), the Kedushat Levi takes a different approach. He admits to the possibility that Pharaoh is capable of religious growth through suffering. How does he do this? By riffing on a midrash about Hebrew letters. He reminds us: some letters are “open,” such as the regular mem מ, while others are “closed” such as the final mem ם and also the samech ס. Just as some letters are open, some souls are naturally “open,” to receive divine light and holiness, while other souls are like closed off letters. Yet, he says, even the closed letters are capable of miraculous development.
The same Pharaoh who said last week, “Who is the Lord—I do not know him!” will say this week, “I have sinned this time—the Lord is righteous and I and my people are evil.” What causes this transformation? It was the plagues. Pharaoh had to experience the plagues not because they caused suffering, but because they were miraculous. According to this reading, the plagues arrive in order to crack the shell of isolation, and build connections between people.
These two Hasidic readings are opposite in one sense—the first reads Pharaoh as an intransigent villain who must suffer in order that his villainy be exposed. The second reading is more redemptive—even the closed soul of Pharaoh was capable of change. But both readings see the utility of suffering as a catalyst for change.
Do not misunderstand me—I don’t claim that all suffering is redemptive and necessary! Indeed, much of the experience of suffering in this world is destructive and horrific. But there are situations in which an experience of suffering, tragic though it may be, may lead to change.
As we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King this weekend, let us heed his message of the need for courage and self-control, the utility of some suffering, and the possibility that righteous coalitions will ultimately overcome the forces of evil in every generation. And let us ask ourselves: What are we doing to expose the evil of racism in our midst and yet to make space for redemption among those who we are so sure have closed hearts?