Sticking to Love in 2023: Thoughts on MLK Day and Parshat Shemot

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Samantha Safran, EHS Director of Jewish Life & Learning

This week at EHS our 8th graders were busy organizing two special events in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day–one, a schoolwide educational assembly, and the other, a Freedom & Justice themed Kabbalat Shabbat, both celebrating Dr. King and his legacy.

It seems fitting that this Shabbat we read from parshat Shemot in the Torah–the very beginning of the book of Shemot, the book of Exodus. In this parsha:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף:

And a new king arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph. The king said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal harshly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.”

Thus begins the enslavement of the Israelite people in the Torah.

If we zoom out of this story, what do we see? We see someone with power – the new king of Egypt – fearing someone else – the children of Israel – because he did not know them, lo yada et Yosef, he did not know Joseph and his people. In other words, we see ignorance leading to fear and fear leading to hate and discrimination.

Of course, Dr. King very much identified with the Exodus story, and in it saw numerous parallels to the plight of the Black community during his time. Famously, and perhaps with parshat Shemot in mind, Dr. King once said:

“I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”

In other words Dr. King, expanding upon the biblical text, taught that segregation leads to silence, silence leads to ignorance, ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. An ancient message; a modern historical message; and as we all know, sadly, a message that still resonates today.

So what happens when we take this message in the other direction? Towards knowledge instead of ignorance? Towards love instead of hate? The Pharaoh in Egypt didn’t know Joseph at first, but over time got to know Joseph and elevated him to his inner circle; Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t know the Israelite people, but she wittingly adopted Moses as a Hebrew baby and he grew up among royalty because of her compassion; fast forwarding to the twentieth century, Louis Armstrong, a longtime supporter of Dr. King, who recorded the Exodus-inspired Black spiritual ‘Go Down Moses’ at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, was practically raised by a neighboring Jewish family in New Orleans–he didn’t know Jewish people, they didn’t know Black people, and for the rest of his life he wore a Jewish star around his neck to remind him of their kindness.

So, as we embark upon a new secular year, may we help move our world from ignorance to knowledge, from fear to embrace, from hate to love. Invite over a neighbor, start a conversation with a restaurant server, smile at passers by on the street. Dr. King said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” In 2023, may we all stick with love.