This Saturday morning just past (Jan. 18, 2014), I was scheduled to lead Torah study in Mishkan Shalom, one of the three Philadelphia-neighborhood congregations that Phyllis and I belong to. Actually, I don’t “lead” it so much as I “weave” it, choosing the specific passage we read and then encouraging the participants to explore their own thoughts and feelings about it. As a weaver might, I may connect some threads and suggest a related thought. The Word of Torah that emerges is not mine, but the community’s.
So the first question is, what passage will we read?
We were to read the Torah portion (Exodus chapters 19 & 20) about the Voice at Mount Sinai, the Voice that comes as the whole mountain quakes and erupts in thunder and fire and smoke. The entire people is about to hear the Voice call out with Ten thundering Utterances, initiating the community into a collective prophetic mode.
Jewish tradition matches the Torah passage of each week with reading a Prophetic passage that echoes it or challenges it. This past Shabbat, that passage was about the moment when Isaiah, sitting in the Temple, feels the building shake and fill with smoke. He hears the Voice call him, initiating him to become what we call a Prophet. (Isaiah 6: 1-13).
Since this past weekend has been and this morning still is devoted to Martin Luther King, I decided to bring in as well his own initiation into becoming a Prophet in our lives. I brought his first speech in Montgomery, Alabama, as a young pastor – a speech four days after Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to move from the seat she had taken in the “whites-only” section of a Montgomery bus. A speech to 5,000 members of the Black community who had just voted to boycott the Montgomery buses.
I was hoping to explore how we ourselves deal with moments when our own hearts and guts and minds call on us to speak aloud some troubling truth. Maybe a big political truth, maybe a “small” family truth. Have I seen my child abused –- by a teacher, by my spouse, by a bully – once too often? Am I horrified and outraged that other children, hungry children, will get no supper at all tonight because Congress has refused to set aside money for food stamps? How do I, we, respond? With fear? With boldness? If we feel our own world quaking and erupting in smoke and thunder under our feet, what do we do?
On Sinai, the Israelites first volunteer: “We will act, we will listen!” and then pull back: “We can’t stand this volcano of Truth! Moses, you go up the Mountain and let us know what you hear!”
When Isaiah first hears the Voice, he first shies back: “I am a man of impeded tongue, obsessive speech!” He feels God’s messengers touch his mouth with a fiery coal, and instead of feeling still more impeded, more frightened, he volunteers: “Here I am! Send me!”
And Dr. King? He begins with impeded speech, a laggard tongue. He expresses apologetic thanks that Rosa Parks is “a person that nobody can call a disturbing factor in the community. Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian person, unassuming…” Not a troublemaker.
And then his voice changes:
“And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.
“We are here, we are here this evening because we’re tired now. And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”
Suddenly to be a Christian is not to be unassuming but to stand boldly for justice. And what is justice? –
“We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. May I say to you my friends, as I come to a close, and just giving some idea of why we are assembled here, that we must keep – and I want to stress this, in all of our doings, in all of our deliberations here this evening and all of the week and while—whatever we do, we must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our actions. But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian face, faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.
“The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, “I love you, Israel.” He’s also the God that stands up before the nations and said: “Be still and know that I’m God, that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.” Standing beside love is always justice, and we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we’ve come to see that we’ve got to use the tools of coercion.”
Justice is the arithmetic of love.
And finally, King speaks specifics:
“Automobiles will be at your service, and don’t be afraid to use up any of the gas. If you have it, if you are fortunate enough to have a little money, use it for a good cause. Now my automobile is gonna be in it, it has been in it, and I’m not concerned about how much gas I’m gonna use. I want to see this thing work. … I’ve never been on a bus in Montgomery. But I would be less than a Christian if I stood back and said, because I don’t ride the bus, I don’t have to ride a bus, that it doesn’t concern me. I will not be content. I can hear a voice saying, “If you do it unto the least of these, my brother, you do it unto me.”
“And I won’t rest; I will face intimidation, and everything else, along with these other stalwart fighters for democracy and for citizenship. We don’t mind it, so long as justice comes out of it. And I’ve come to see now that as we struggle for our rights, maybe some of them will have to die. But somebody said, if a man doesn’t have something that he’ll die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
In the beginning there is already the end: Some will have to die.
So this is what it takes to become a “prophet”? Impeded speech, uncertainty, shakiness within us as our whole world quakes? Courage not instead of fear – but alongside it? And then? And then?
You, our readers, must complete this word of Torah. These acts, these deeds of Torah. I am but a weaver. The strands of wool and silk, scarlet and gray, are what you bring.
Shalom, salaam, sohl; paz, peace – Arthur