Vaera - Torat Malakhim
A Telegram of Spiritual AudacityVa'era ("I appeared…")
Special Torah Portion (Rosh Hodesh): Numbers 28:-9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California
"I have now heard the moaning of the people of Israel because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…"
The weekly Torah portion speaks of ge'ulah, redemption, at the hand of God. What is our role as God's children in the redemptive process? The question invokes a poignant image from the past. The year was 1963, and the distinguished theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was invited to the White House to discuss what was then known as "the Negro problem."
Long before the advent of electronic mail, cellular telephones and Federal Express, telegrams were the favored means of instant communication. Do you remember how you paid by the word when you sent a telegram? Typically, messages were short and to the point. And so it was that Abraham Joshua Heschel sent a telegram to the President of the United States. It read:
To President John F. Kennedy, The White House, June 16, 1963. I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.
Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
Rabbi Heschel's moral grandeur and spiritual audacity grew out of his scholarly work on the prophets of ancient Israel. For Heschel, reading the Hebrew prophets compelled him to be involved in the affairs of humankind, in the suffering of his fellowmen and women. It led him to preach against what he termed the "monstrosity of inequality," and to conclude, "the idea of judging a person in terms of black or brown or white is an eye disease."
Back in the 1960s, these were unpopular views. Most of Heschel's fellow professors at the Seminary drew a sharp line between politics and religion. Many Americans preferred to see their clergymen stay in the pulpit and out of politics.
But Dr. Heschel didn't worry about academic aloofness or political correctness. He didn't worry about the latest fashions or breaking news in the world of sports. Rabbi Heschel was a modern-day prophet who exhorted us to keep Shabbat and learn Torah, even as he thundered against the war in Vietnam and the oppression of African-Americans in our land. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us to be passionate about social justice. He embodied the finest ideals of tikkun olam, repairing and restoring society.
If Rabbi Heschel were alive today, what message might he bring to our community? I believe that he would tell us that we have a long way to go in perfecting this world. He would tell us to emulate the prophets of old, and to speak out whenever and wherever we see suffering and oppression. He would tell us that it is our sacred duty to heal our broken world.
This past week would have been Rabbi Heschel's 100th birthday. Pirkay Avot teaches; "Select a master teacher for yourself." Abraham Joshua Heschel was and is that master teacher. In his life and his writings we have a priceless treasure, a Shulhan Arukh for sanctifying and redeeming ourselves and the world around us. Now we must learn and live by his words and his deeds.
January 20, 2007 / 1 Shevat 5765