Tuesday, January 22, 2008

JAM and MLK Day

The Torah Portion Jews read for Shabbat this past Saturday, Be’shalach, recounts the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Shira,” “The Sabbath of Song,” because Be’shalach includes the “Song at the Sea” that Moses and the Israelites sing in thanks to G-d for delivering them.

Also this past Saturday, many Muslims fasted for the 10th of the month of Muharram, a voluntary fast recommended by Muhammad to commemorate Moses’s (Musa’s) fast to thank G-d for saving the Israelites from Pharaoh and his army. Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, while the Hebrew calendar is a mix of lunar and solar, the 10th of Muharram does not always fall on Shabbat Shira.

Additionally, on Monday Americans celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The language of the Exodus from Egypt also figures very strong in the Civil Rights Movement and the language Dr. King used to inspire it.

And so we have three important days on three different calendars, all commemorating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

Thought I would hesitate to draw parallels between Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the Civil Rights Movement, there is one message relevant to both that I would like to communicate. At Shabbat services last Friday night, a fellow student spoke about Be’shalach and its relation to Dr. King and his goals. She noted that though G-d’s deliverance in safely bringing the Israelites out of Egypt was certainly a major and formative event, it was not as though the people left Egypt and directly entered the Promised Land and an era of peace. Rather, the Exodus was followed by a long and difficult journey – indeed, a passage so spiritually and physically arduous that almost all of the generation of the Exodus never made it to Israel.

Both the quest for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation and the pursuit of civil equality are grueling journeys that are easy to give up on. While each has its formative moments, no single event is enough the remedy the situation completely. But as a famous passage from the Talmud says, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:21). At those times when it seems naïve to hope for peace, we should at least hope that we have the strength to continue the journeys whose beginnings, rather than completions, Shabbat Shira, the 10th of Muharram, and MLK Day commemorate.

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