From Moses to Martin


Toward the beginning of Parshat Va’eira, God instructs Moses to speak to the Children of Israel, suffering under Egyptian slavery. This inspiring rhetoric will ultimately give structure to Four Cups of wine at Passover. God promises: “I will free you … deliver you … redeem you … and take you to be My people.” Their initial response to this message may surprise.

“And Moses spoke just this to the Children of Israel, but they would not listen to Moses on account of their crushed spirits and the effects of cruel bondage.”

Moses confronted the reality that most leaders of liberation movements have faced. The people were unable to hear the grand rhetoric, the ways in which God sent Moses to deliver them from this nightmare. Some could not understand the message, and others were hostile towards Moses, fearing a disruption that could make a terrible situation worse.

The test of Moses as a leader is whether he is able to respond appropriately, even with love, to the rejection he faced from his own people — the very people he was sent to save.

Throughout history this same pattern emerges. The Founding Fathers confronted strong opposition from both Loyalists and ordinary colonists terrified of the notion of revolution. The earliest proponents of a Jewish state faced resistance including religious objection, fears of “dual-
loyalty” accusations and a host of other issues. In example after example, great leaders who seek freedom and justice encounter hostility from the power structures they are seeking to topple, as well as the very populations they seek to protect.

This Monday, our nation recognizes the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It is worth noting that his leadership of the American civil rights movement reflects the pattern encountered by Moses. There was opposition to him as a leader, both from the outside, where much of America was content with the way things were, and internally, where he faced strident criticism for being too liberal, too conservative, too connected to white leaders, too connected to Jews and not connected enough. Some of the opposition to him certainly came, as our Torah portion puts it, due to “crushed spirits and the effects of cruel bondage.”

In a 1967 speech, King concluded: “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”

From Moses to Martin and beyond, this has always been the case.

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.

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