Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere – Commemorating MLK, Jr.

The legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demands that we pursue justice to turn his dream, and the dreams of all humanity, into a living reality.

Today we remember and commemorate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: civil rights leader, social justice activist, pastor, preacher, husband, father, scholar, orator, dreamer.

This same week, it is no coincidence that the Jewish people begins reading from the book of Exodus in our weekly biblical reading (this is the second book of the Five Books of Moses). The book of Exodus relates the story of the Jewish people’s struggle for freedom of oppression from slavery in Egypt.

It was a long, hard road for our people to find their way from Egypt to the Promised Land of Israel. A road fraught with disappointment, frustration, set backs – and yet, on this road, our people, the Jewish people, was born. Our nation found its path toward building a covenantal relationship with God. We discovered some of the greatest eternal truths that still guide us today, thousands of years later.

Many peoples have experienced struggles of slavery, oppression and bondage. Many people have had to walk that same road that our people did so many years ago. And as we are all too well aware, the struggles are still not over.

The Jewish people’s story of oppression and redemption strongly resonates with the lessons that Dr. King taught. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke with a prophetic voice echoing those biblical values, morals and ideals. He fought for what was just and right and fair. And many rabbis and ministers and priests and good people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds walked along side him. His message still cries out to us today, in our broken, hurting world.

This morning, I was honored to participate in the 31st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast sponsored by the Greater Framingham Community Church (under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. J. Anthony Lloyd). Over 350 community leaders, faith leaders and good people from all different backgrounds gathered together in prayer, song and learning to commemorate Dr. King and to dedicate ourselves anew to turning his dream into actuality. Together we affirmed that we will not be silent, we will not stand idly by, but that together, we will work hand-in-hand in pursuit of justice, freedom and peace.

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel – Temple Beth Am, Framingham Invocation and Blessing [1]

As we gather together this morning as a community to commemorate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we remind ourselves that this is a moment to both recognize those whose pursuit of justice and freedom paved the path we walk today. And we ask for courage and strength as we journey forward on the road towards redemption and liberation.

Many among us experience both privilege and comfort. Yet our experiences remind us that not all are free. So today we shake ourselves from complacency and affirm our pursuit of justice, as the Rev. Dr. King,. taught:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Birmingham, Alabama, April 16, 1963).

Dr. King’s words go hand-in-hand with what Jewish tradition teaches:

In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6)

And so on this morning, we pray: Help us O God, to see, to hear, and to know the injustices that keep us from redemption, that keep us from being whole, that keep us from being complete. Enable us to hear the voices of others when they tell us how they are oppressed, how they are suffering, how they are in pain. Grant us wisdom and compassion to eradicate the experience of the captive, so that all may experience their God-given right to live in freedom. Give us courage, energy and humility to embrace those among us who we too easily label as “other”. Give us the power to do our part to bring these words to fruition: “Let violence be gone; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.”

For it is you, O God, who commanded us in the book of Deuteronomy:

“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

And when we all hearken to these words, we know that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) And then each one of us will be able to sit down with all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender in friendship and peace to partake of the bread of life, the bread of freedom. We praise you and thank you, O God, who gives us the courage to work hand-in-hand to bring justice and peace to our world, who blesses us with the gift of friendship that knows no boundaries and for the blessing of food that nourishes our bodies and souls.


[1] With thanks to Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch and Koach Baruch Frazier for inspiring portions of this invocation with their Prayer for Shabbat Tzedek 2018 for the Religious Action Center. Click on the link to see that prayer in full.

Yes, Time Magazine, He IS “Worth It!” Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl Home…A Jewish View

The cover of this week’s Time Magazine has a drawing of US Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl against a backdrop of a US flag.

The large caption reads: “WAS HE WORTH IT? The Cost of Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl Home”

Cover of Time Magazine, June 16, 2014 issue
Cover of Time Magazine, June 16, 2014 issue

I know that headlines sell magazines. But I find this very troubling. “Was he worth it?” Really? Aren’t we taught in our tradition that each and every one of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God?

Later that same day, I was working with one of my pre-Bar Mitzvah students on his d’var Torah for the fall. His Torah portion is Noah. He chose to focus on the verse (Genesis 6:9) that states: “Noah was righteous in his generation.”

My student did a beautiful job summarizing the Torah portion, explaining its meaning and sharing what commentators have to say about it.

Then the discussion became interesting when it was time to relate it to modern times. What does it mean to be “righteous in one’s time?” What does it mean to expend one’s effort on behalf of others and do the right thing? The student then went on to criticize President Barack Obama for making a deal to trade 5 Taliban terrorists to free the “deserter Bowe Bergdahl.”

I paused when I read this. On the one hand, I encourage my students to apply the lessons of Torah to modern life. On the other hand, it concerns me that we have been so quick to judge Bowe Bergdahl when all the facts are still not known.

I used this as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about what our tradition has to teach about justice. We are taught by our tradition:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…
Justice, justice shall you pursue…
Deuteronomy 16:20

And we are also taught:

מַצִּ֣יל נְ֭פָשׁוֹת עֵ֣ד אֱמֶ֑ת וְיָפִ֖חַ כְּזָבִ֣ים מִרְמָֽה׃
Matzil n’fashot ad emet v’yafiyach.
Truthful witness saves lives,
but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.

Proverbs 14:25

We don’t know the entire story about what happened to Bowe Bergdahl, or why he made some of the choices he did. What we do know is this: every human life is sacred. Israel makes many of the same sacrifices to bring back their captured soldiers, just as President Obama made the decision to bring back Sgt. Bergdahl.

We need to wait to learn the rest of the facts, for justice to run its course before we are quick to judge.

My colleague, Rabbi Keith Stern, (Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, MA) wrote a beautiful piece about this, an open letter to Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, which sums up how I feel. I share that with you below:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl,

I truly can’t imagine what these past several years have been like for you. Knowing your son was being held captive by the Taliban, not knowing where he was or the status of his health… I’m sure you haven’t slept well for years. And then this: the anxiety over whether Bowe would be freed (we know there had been similar plans aborted), the thrill of his safe release… and now the firestorm of criticism and hypocrisy.

I’ve never met you nor have I met Bowe. Thankfully I found the Rolling Stone article written by Michael Hastings (who tragically died in a car crash last year). I feel like I know you and Bowe and his situation a little better.

Bowe’s childhood growing up on 40 acres of lush farm tucked into remote country sounds like another world to me, a suburbs boy who’s raised his kids in a fairly insulated and protected environment. Bowe had a whole world to explore on a dirt bike. He loved his bb gun. It sounds glorious and free.

But you tempered his freedom. You homeschooled your kids and rigorously set out a moral system by which they could evaluate their actions. They learned about accountability for their behavior.

Bowe tried to find his balance point between responsibility and adventure. Mr. Bergdahl, you seem to have been a tremendous influence on Bowe, telling him not what to do but rather to do what he thought right. What an honorable man you are. It is not easy to parent a child with so much energy and drive and curiosity, a kid who seemed determined to push the envelope, to become an Olympic fencer or to join the French Foreign Legion or, for that matter, the US Army.

The two of you obviously know a whole lot more than I do, so you may know much more about Bowe’s story and why he left his post. The Rolling Stone article painted a disheartening story about his unit and its lack of leadership and discipline. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with the kind of chaos that seemed to constantly flare up into trouble must have been mentally challenging and exhausting. The point is, nobody knows yet why he left his post. So why are so many people judging Bowe? He is being pilloried in the press by pundits and politicians who profess to know something. These people use lies and half-truths to turn your son into a shirker, a deserter, a turncoat. It is striking to me that there is no such thing as circumspection, no benefit of a doubt. There is no empathy, no mature sense of propriety. I am ashamed of the way some of our country’s politicians and journalists have spoken, for they truly besmirch the good name of this country, not to mention, of course, your son’s honor. In the Jewish tradition such talk is utterly unacceptable.

So now you are in limbo. Bowe is safely returned to the US, but I would guess you are still not sleeping. You’re wondering what shoe may yet drop. But I know that you must be so relieved that at least you know where he is. I am so saddened that his welcome home ceremony was cancelled. I get it, but that must have been yet another bitter pill to swallow.

I’m sure people have pointed out all of the facts about the prisoner swap that enabled your son to get home. As a Zionist and a Jew, I know that Israel has released thousands of prisoners in order to return Israeli soldiers from captivity. In fact, Israel has swapped prisoners to get dead Israelis back. It’s never easy. It’s always controversial. But in the end most Israeli parents need to know at the end of the day that their children will not be abandoned in captivity.

 Like I said, I don’t know what happened. We may never really get the truth. But this I do know: It doesn’t matter if Bowe had deserted his post or not. The story may end up unfavorably. Your son may be in legal trouble. As David Brooks wrote today:

It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship, and loyalty to the national community we all share. Soldiers don’t risk their lives only for those Americans who deserve it; they do it for the nation as a whole.

I am so sorry for your anguish. I hope you are soon reunited with your son. And if things get harder, if there is litigation and more circus antics in the press, please know that many of us who are parents and grandparents and proud Americans send you our love and support. No matter what, he’s still your boy.

Rabbi Keith Stern

You and I Can Change the World

When I was in high school, I was part of a Jewish folk-singing trio with two of my friends. We called ourselves “Hashoshanim” – The Roses. We performed for synagogues and other Jewish organizations across New Jersey and New York in the late 1970’s.

One of our favorite songs was a popular Israeli song by Arik Einstein and Miki Gavrielov, “Ani V’atah”: You and I will change the world, you and I, then all will join us.

Together, we can change the world.
Together, we can change the world.

The message of this song was a lesson that my parents instilled within me from the time I was young: each one of us has the ability to make a difference in this world. Not only that, but our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are obligated to do our part to make this world a better place for others, a concept known as “tikkun olam” – repairing the world.

We learn from the Torah, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 16:20). My parents taught us from a young age how to make these words a reality in our lives by:

  • Encouraging us to give tzedakah (charity) from our own money on a regular basis;
  • Taking us to march in rallies in Manhattan and Washington, DC to support Israel, to free Soviet Jews, to fight against the war in Viet Nam;
  • Speaking out for those who are unable to speak for themselves.
  • Keeping social justice issues on the forefront of our congregational agendas and on our agenda for conversation at home.

I continue to be passionate about social justice issues throughout my life. I hear my father’s voice telling me: “Sharon, the Talmud teaches us, ‘once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected. You must ACT.'”

During rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to travel to the USSR with two classmates to visit Refuseniks and bring in much needed supplies. I spent 4.5 months in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, working with Reform congregations there and learning about the situation and what we could do back at home to help ameliorate the pain and suffering caused by Apartheid.

My tikkun olam work since ordination has been broad and varied. It has included:

  • starting the first Jewish AIDS Committee in Canada;
  • continuing to visit the FSU and working with the Jewish communities in Belarus to bring in much needed medical supplies; teaching about Pesach and leading Pesach seders;
  • organizing and starting the first Mitzvah Day at my former congregation in Connecticut – a program that has been going on for almost two decades now and has the highest congregational participation outside of High Holy Days;
  • Working with the Canadian Reform Movement on a National program to stop Human Trafficking;
  • Partnering with the Canadian Reform Movement and ARZA Canada on many Israeli social justice programs.
  • And so much more!

I therefore feel so honoured and thrilled to be selected to participate in the American Jewish World Service (AJWS.) Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbis for the 2014-2015 year.

American Jewish World Service
American Jewish World Service

The fellowship is done in conjunction with our work in our own congregations. AJWS feels that congregational rabbis play key roles in our own communities when it comes to coalition building, community organizing and raising awareness about critical issues.

The program includes an 8-10 day educational trip to Kenya in August. We’ll learn from extraordinary local human rights activists who are using grassroots organizing tactics to fight discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls and the LGBT community. Back at home, we will engage in innovative training sessions to develop skills in community organizing and advocacy. The goal is to mobilize and organize our communities in support of the wonderful work that AJWS does across the globe and other efforts to promote global justice, as we advocate for human rights and try to end poverty across the world.

As I begin this fellowship this March, I will be blogging about the work I am doing. I hope you will follow my blog and join in our efforts.

“Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha-olam – together, you and I CAN change the world!”

To learn more about American Jewish World Service and the wonderful work that they do across the world, click here.


Sing a Song of Freedom

This week and next we commemorate the values of freedom, justice and liberty.

B’shalach, our Torah reading for this week, celebrates the new-found freedom of the Israelites as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 15 we read the beautiful Song at the Sea, the poem of praise, thanksgiving and victory which the Israelites sang upon their safe deliverance. “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal. They said:


I will sing to the Eternal, for Adonai has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The Eternal is my strength and might;

He is become my deliverance.

This is my God and I will enshrine Him.

The God of my ancestors, and I will exalt him.” (Exodus 15: 1-2)

We remind ourselves every day, twice a day, that we used to be slaves when we recite the “Mi Chamocha” prayer in our daily morning service and evening service. “Mi Chamocha” is actually not a prayer or blessing. The verses are actually taken from this week’s Torah reading: Exodus 15:11 and 15: 18:

“Who is like You, majestic in holiness,

Awesome in splendor, working wonders!… The Eternal will reign for ever and ever.”

Why do we need to remind ourselves constantly of our servitude?

Both the Torah itself and the later rabbis instill within us the value of historical memory:

In every generation, one is obligated to see one’s self as having personally left Egypt. As it is said: (Exodus 13:8), ‘And you will tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5)

By reciting Mi Chamocah twice daily, we are reminding ourselves of a few things: 1) we are connected to God in a relationship that is historic; 2) God redeemed us from slavery; and 3) if we needed assistance to be liberated from bondage, then we are obligated to help those who are not yet free as well. Mi Chamocha then is our call to action.

Modern Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel took this obligation very seriously. In one of his important works, he wrote:

“Freedom means more than mere emancipation. It is primarily freedom of conscience, bound up with inner allegiance. The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that “I can act as I desire.” This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction. The will is not an ultimate and isolated entity, but determined by motives beyond its own control. To be what one wants to be is also not freedom, since the wishes of the ego are largely determined by external factors…Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice. Man’s true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends him. Each challenge from beyond the person is unique, and each response must be new and creative… The glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free, and my capacity to be free, but also in the realization of my fellow man’s right to be free, and his capacity to be free.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966)

Heschel was not just a man of thought, a man of words, but a man of deed. In 1965, he marched in the famous march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was his friend and close colleague. “When I marched in Selma, it felt like my legs were praying,” Heschel commented after the march.

Susannah Heschel, AJ Heschel’s daughter, explained this further:

“For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism’s political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.” (Susannah Heschel, “Following in my father’s footsteps: Selma 40 years later”)

The photo below shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the far right, participating in the Selma march. On his left is Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a former Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple (where I began my rabbinate) and long-standing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1943-1972). Both Heschel and Eisendrath worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. fighting against racism, bigotry, hatred and intolerance. They all fought for civil rights and justice.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (Pres. of the UAHC), Rabbi Abraham Joshuah Heschel. The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (Pres. of the UAHC), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.

Therefore, it is not so ironic that we as a Jewish people are celebrating our own historical liberation from bondage, just one week before we, as a nation, observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Birmingham, Alabama, April 16, 1963).

Dr. King’s words go hand-in-hand with what we learn from our own Jewish tradition:

“In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6)

as well as,

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

We will do justice to our Torah portion this week, B’shalach, and to the memories of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and to all who work to free the captives, when we work to fulfill the following words:

Let violence be gone; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.” (Gates of Prayer, page 618. Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1975).