I was blessed to be able to offer the keynote address at Interfaith Tampa Bay's annual MLK remembrance program. The full video of my presentation is above. My notes are below. I never quite read a sermon, so there is some improvisation in every presentation. I hope you will find it meaningful.
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
January 17, 2021
“Creating a world that works for everyone”
Good afternoon, it is a privilege and an honor to stand before you today. I am grateful to be here, to serve my community, my congregation, my brothers and sisters. I know the power of words, I know that speaking about their power CAN make a difference. When I was asked to speak on “Creating a world that works for everyone”, I thought about the roles I fulfill. I am a rabbi, a teacher, a parent, a spouse, who works diligently for my family, for my community, for my city. I know that to change the world is not only to make radical changes on a global scale, to be known outside our circles, but to work to make things just a little bit better right here, right now.
Sometimes in the moment, we know just what to say and sometimes we do not. I want to share a story from just a few short days ago. Like many, this pandemic has encouraged me to work on my physical well being. I have invited friends, congregants, and clergy to go cycling with me. On one such ride with the Rev JC Pritchett, we started and ended in the parking lot of my congregation, CBI. After we safely made it across 1st Ave N, we were heading back to the congregation on 62nd. A car pulled up behind us so we moved to get out of the way. An older woman calls out to me. She asks directions for how to get to Pasadena Ave. Nothing seems strange about this story. Yet, Rev Pritchett is standing right there, too. Rev Pritchett has lived his entire life in this city. I have made it my home (and could easily answer that question), but my knowledge of the geography and history of this city is a fraction of his. After the driver turned around, we spoke for a moment about the most likely defining factor--our skin color. The driver was white and Rev Pritchett is African-American. I cannot get into her head. I do not know what she was thinking, yet she definitely rolled down the window to speak with me, rather than him. Could I have erased her casual racism with a magic word? Unlikely, was it worth reflecting her choice back upon her? Maybe.
For me, change happens one on one. It happens through building relationships. If that was my first conversation with Rev Pritchett, we likely would not have discussed that moment. Neither one of us would have been comfortable revealing the elephant in the room. We may have ignored it and gone on our way. Instead we shared our feelings. We spoke about engaging and not engaging, when we speak and when we stay silent.
As a rabbi, my training is not only about relationships, but it is about text. I want to share with you from a foundational text that is shared by many of us. I want to read from the opening of the book of Genesis, Bereshit. The opening of the Torah teaches us that through the power of speech, the world came into being.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱ-לֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
When God began to create heaven and earth—
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃
God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱ-לֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃
God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.
וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱ-לֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃
God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day
In just a few words, light came to be. In just a few words, WE came to be. While our words may not create the universe, they create the universe that is around us. They create or destroy the universe of people that we love. They create or destroy friendships, family relationships, and so much more.
As a rabbi, I look at these words and think about the legacy of these words. My tradition has been arguing over them for generations. I see that discussions and arguments can connect us to the Holy One. If we study with another, we can see multiple perspectives of the same texts, find deeper meanings, and reveal hidden truths. My tradition speaks of arguments for the sake of heaven, makloket leshem shamayim, arguments that respect the humanity of the other, lift one another up and push us to find truth.
If we want to create a world that works for everyone, we have to work towards truth. If we want to create a world that works for everyone, we have to see the humanity in one another, the holiness in one another. We cannot forget the soul of the person standing in front of us.
We cannot forget the power of words.
Yet we live in a world where disagreement has become violent, where our words can be weaponized. Some might say this is new, but the book of Ecclesisastes would remind us that nothing is new under the sun, אֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ. In preparing for today, I looked back at some of the holy words, the holy fire of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the 17th of May, 1956, at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC, he preached “the Death of Evil upon the Seashore”. There, like so many times before and since, he used the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, to connect his story to mine. He showed us that while we may share many different stories, they are intertwined.
In our own struggle for freedom and justice in this country we have gradually seen the death of evil. Many years ago the Negro was thrown into the Egypt of segregation, and his great struggle has been to free himself from the crippling restrictions and paralyzing effects of this vicious system. For years it looked like he would never get out of this Egypt. The closed Red Sea always stood before him with discouraging dimensions. There were always those Pharaohs with hardened hearts, who, despite the cries of many a Moses, refused to let these people go. But one day, through a world shaking decree by the nine justices of the Supreme Court of America and an awakened moral conscience of many White persons of good will, backed up by the Providence of God, the Red Sea was opened, and the forces of justice marched through to the other side. As we look back we see segregation caught in the rushing waters of historical necessity. Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation cannot survive. There is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.
Those words could have been written today. They are just as relevant in this moment as they were in 1956. He showed a great passion to change this world for the better, connecting with the humanity in each and every person--even those with whom he had significant disagreements. Near his conclusion he taught:
Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.
On April 4, 1967, the Rev. Dr. MLK joined my teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and many others at the magnificent Riverside Church in New York City. His message was against the Vietnam War, a message that was not well received by some outside the walls of that magnificent church. He spoke out against our government sending mostly black and brown troops to fight against people of color halfway around the world. He shared how his fight against war was not anti-American, but patriotic, that he wanted our country to be better, to lift up all of her citizens, to unite them to do good HERE, rather than to unite through war elsewhere. He spoke about the power of love--in a very particular form:
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate -- ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love." "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
At this moment, the power of our words is incredible. When we speak to one another, we can share words of light or words of darkness. We can lift one another up or we can push one another. We can share that love to build a world that is for everyone.
Today we are reflecting on the legacy of Dr. MLK. His leadership was bringing light into this world. In a time of darkness, he chose non-violence. He chose a path of peace. This was not a quiet peace accepting the status quo, but a loud peace, demanding righteousness and justice. Today there are many who call for acceptance of what has been, yet bringing light into this world often illuminates the challenges that remain. As I reflect on the legacy of Dr. MLK, I think of the importance of the still, small voice, the legacy of the Hebrew prophets, and the demand to live a life of righteousness. Let us light these lamps, let us work towards justice, let us pray for a real and lasting peace, one that builds a better future for all. Let us use our words to make this world better. Let us use our words to make a world that works for everyone.