On a hot day in June of 1964 Rabbi Richard Levy relates that,
I was at a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis when Martin Luther King sent a telegram asking for rabbis to join him in a demonstration in St. Augustine, FL…. So I went with fifteen other rabbis. We were ushered into a [room] where King was speaking and as we came in he said, ‘Here come Moses’ children’.
Here come Moses’s children. How about that? How striking… Which led me to ponder: What does it mean to be Moses’s children today? Thus this sermon… which is Part Two of my exploration of the legacy of the Sixties that I began last night.
Some of you know that one of those Augustine sixteen was my own rabbi, from Temple Israel in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, Rabbi Michael Robinson, of blessed memory. Another was my late professor at Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz. These brave souls spent all night in a sweltering jail. At 3:00 AM, by the light of a single naked light bulb in the corridor outside their overcrowded cell they wrote a letter, Why We Went.
The Augustine Sixteen declared,
We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. Here in St. Augustine we have seen… the deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
The Augustine Sixteen were telling us that when we stand idly by we are not innocent; we are part of the problem.
King himself said in his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail that,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.
We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to “order” than to justice… and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
The man who spoke at the famous March on Washington just before King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” was a rabbi. His name was Joachim Prinz. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he led a congregation in Newark, and he helped lead the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. Rabbi Prinz said that day,
The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
Yet another great rabbi from the civil rights movement, Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps said it best,
In a free society; some are guilty, all are responsible.
Fast forward fifty years: She was not a rabbi or a minister, but I am still haunted by the words of Heather Heyer. Do you recognize that name? She was the young woman killed in Charlottesville, when she was rammed by a car driven into the crowd by an avowed racist.
Heather Heyer wrote that day in what would be her final Facebook post:
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
Are we outraged? Are we paying attention? Are we standing up or are we standing by?
In the spirit of King and the Rabbis and Heather Heyer: What does it mean to be Moses’ children today?
What does it mean to be Moses’ children in the wake of the racist violence of Charlottesville and Charleston?
The police violence of East St. Louis, Staten Island, Baltimore, Baton Rouge?
The mass shooting violence of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland?
What does it mean to be Moses’ children in a time of #black lives matter and #me too and #march for our lives?
What does it mean to be Moses’s children in a time of zero tolerance of migrants and the separation of children from parents?
In the spirit of our revolutionary ancestor, allow me to respond that to be Moses’s children means, if nothing else: Opening our Eyes and Voting with Our Feet.
Opening our Eyes:
When he was a young man the Torah says that Moses “went out to his people and witnessed their toil.” (Ex.2) Then he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen, and he acted.
Later on Moses opens his eyes again. “He gazed and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight.’” (Ex.3) God too opens His eyes, as it were, as the Torah says, “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
Deep into the civil rights struggle, during his Poor People’s Campaign near the end of his life, King said,
We must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. Negroes generally live in worse slums today than 20 or 25 years ago. In the North schools are more segregated than they were in 1954…. The unemployment rate among Negroes is [worse]; twice that of whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than whites.
If we open our eyes today, what do we see 50 years after the Civil Rights movement?
Black kids are three times as likely to be poor as white kids.
Black unemployment is twice that of white unemployment.
Homeownership is 40% for African Americans; 70% for whites.
Four in ten black and Latino students attends schools that are 90% minority. In NYC it’s five in ten.
Latinos actually are now the largest minority in the country. Poverty rates have declined for all Americans except Latinos. One out of four Hispanic adults lives below the poverty line; one out of three children. Millions more, who cut our lawns; clean our pools, wash our dishes, and pick our fruit live just above it.
And did you see this last week: In 2016 net worth among white middle-income families in America was 19% below 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation). But among blacks, it was 40% below, and for Hispanics 46% below.
Do you call that an economic recovery?
Praying with our Feet:
God said to Moses to get up and start marching back to Egypt to speak truth to power. Later God told Moses to get up and start marching out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land.
Professor Michael Walzer of Princeton writes in a powerful verse that we often read from our prayerbook,
Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before we ever stood at Sinai’s foot;
that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness;
that there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.
When Rabbi Heschel marched with King at Selma he remarked afterwards, “I felt as if my legs were praying.”
Praying with our feet means marching and lobbying. I was so proud when young people across America led the way last spring in the March for our Lives and the national school walk-outs.
I was so proud when I found out that our own Leonia high schoolers Maddie Raciatti and Isabel Raskin were among the student leaders here in Leonia.
I was so proud last year when I went to a Leonia Town Council meeting to advocate for the Leonia sanctuary city resolution that our own Sandy Pecht had made a special trip back from college to do the same.
The year before last I had the privilege of meeting civil rights icon John Lewis, still feisty after all these years. I shook his hand and told him that I was the head of The Jewish Publication Society that had published the work of Rabbi Heschel. He recalled marching with Heschel and how much that meant. He said to us rabbis:
Keep marching. Raise your voices. Make some noise!
I know that if Dr. King was here, if Rabbi Heschel was here, if Rabbi Prinz was here, if Rabbi Borowitz was here, if Rabbi Robinson was here… they would all say the same thing as Jon Lewis.
They would remind us that the Torah commands (Lev. 18):“You shall not stand idly by.”
They would remind us that the Torah commands (Ex. 23): “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
They would remind us that the Torah commands (Deut. 16): “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
They would remind us, “Open your eyes and vote with your feet.”
They would remind us that so much is at stake in American today.
We are fighting for freedom of the press right now.
We are fighting for oppressed refugees right now.
We are fighting for traumatized children right now.
We are fighting for victimized women right now.
We are fighting for the future of our very democracy right now.
We are fighting for the future of our gasping planet right now.
They would say at this New Year: Remember who you are!
They would say, as we enter the room:
Here come Moses’ children.
Here come Moses’ children.
Make way for the children of Moses.