This year we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with an incredible get-together with our neighbors from St. James United Methodist Church. We also invited Dr. Tarece Johnson to talk about the legacy of Dr. King, from her experience as a black woman and contemporary activist. Her words of Torah shook the rafters and, in the words of our tradition, were words from the heart that entered the heart. Here are a few of the words she shared:
“Coretta Scott King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” This work first starts with YOU, and yes, you will make mistakes like Moses, yes, you will be afraid like David, yes, you may even lose some friends, like Dr. King, but I hope you recognize that Dr. King, even with all of his imperfections, was perfect in the work of continuously evolving to be a better person, an extraordinary leader, and a transformative agent for change. I hope you too will understand that even though you are imperfect, you can still do the perfect work to change yourself to be and do better. When you change who you are and take a stand for doing what is right, you will change the systems that enslave and oppress people. You will help to dismantle
systemic racism that is the silent killer of Black and Brown people. You will build authentic solidarity to eradicate the ignorance and hate that feeds anti-Semitism.”
What did Dr. Johnson mean when she said the work first starts with YOU? There is a beautiful teaching from the Baal Shem Tov about the Exodus from Egypt that says that while the Exodus writ large is a liberation of an entire people from slavery to Pharaoh, each individual is also enslaved to an internal taskmaster. The “shortness of breath” and “crushed spirit” that kept the Israelites in bondage keeps each of us from seeing new possibilities in our lives. We bow down and are imprisoned by our own complacency facing a world that seems too broken to fix. The Baal Shem Tov taught that while it may seem that the more pressing Exodus is that of the people, one must always start with the personal experience of slavery and move toward the national struggle for liberation. The reason is that if we start with the nation, it will never feel necessary to free ourselves from our own limitations. On the other hand, the work of breaking free from personal
taskmasters inspires the engagement necessary to tackle the bigger problems. Dr. Johnson echoed this greater work of liberation when she concluded her words:
“I hope to one day stand at the sea and rejoice like Miriam, and celebrate the safety of our Jewish people, the liberation of Black and Brown people, and the freedom of all of humanity. I hope to one day, play my tambourine and sing the songs of freedom in the land of promise, dreamt by the honorable, Dr. Martin Luther King. I hope to lift up my arms and pull the
sea open as I gaze at the moon and say the words of Dr. King: “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men (& women) and white men (& women), Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
We find ourselves on the calendar in between this time of thinking about freedom and the Passover holiday during which we relive the story of Exodus and relate its lessons to our lives. May we be inspired by the history as well as the present moment to continue to pursue justice, practice compassion, and cherish freedom. So may it be.

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