Every year, I struggle with what to think or do on MLK Day. This day is not about me. It has never been. Posting MLK quotes on Facebook seems inconsequential. So I do my best to listen to those around me, and to stand with Black Lives Matter and other organizations that are fighting for freedom. On Friday night, I listened to my Rabbi talk about the fight for freedom that MLK strived for. I listened to rabbis speak about social justice, but none of it felt right. But when I was cleaning my room when I came back to school, I happened upon my copy of Religion and Race, an essay by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, written in 1963. Before I even got to the essay, I saw a quote from Ruth Messinger that I had written at the top: "We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. " We do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed. I kept reading.
And as I reread this essay, having only looked at it a few months prior, I found greater meaning. Perhaps it is because we are about to swear in a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Heschel speaks of the responsibility that we, as religious people, have to right racism which he equates to satanism. He asks the question of "How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt." And I found myself asking, how many? How many shootings? How many have to die before we start paying attention and fighting for justice? We are taught in Judaism that we shall not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, so why aren't we fighting? Heschel speaks about a "leap of action," a move in the exact opposite direction of what is easy to do what is right. We must push the arc of the world toward justice as much as we can.
I thought about empowerment and remembered something a rabbi said about telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps after they have lost faith in themselves and lost hope. I think about how to empower by listening, to empower in a way that is not patronizing or condescending. And in terms of this, I want other peoples' input. I am here. I am present, but I don't know what to do. Heschel was writing a long time ago, making his words about religion and race more and more potent. I will continue to pursue justice and to keep my eyes and ears open, and I will do my best, in a world that feels broken beyond repair, to build this world from love.