Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, author and award winning journalist

Dr King, Passover and the Urgency of Now

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav stated about the Exodus:

One needs to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt) with great haste (Exodus 12:39). This truth is reaffirmed in each person and in each era. In each person and in each time, there can be found a residue of Mitzrayim, the cravings and woes of this world, and this is the essence of the exile in Mitzrayim. This is the essence of Pesach. At the moment of the Exodus, a great light from on high was revealed, as is known; and at that time, promptly, Israel went out in great haste and they couldn’t tarry. For even if they had remained there even one more instant, they would have remained a remnant there.

This Wednesday, April 4, will mark 50 years since the slaying of Dr Martin Luther King. Exactly one year before he was killed, on April 4, 1967, he gave a seminal speech at Riverside Church in NY, for the first time speaking out forcefully against the Vietnam War. What he said that night reminds me of what we have been hearing from those brave teens of Parkland who have decided to move from their tragedy in a new way, bypassing the “thoughts and prayers” evasiveness of prior mass shootings and focusing on the urgency of the moment.

Kings cri de cours — and Nachman’s — also reflect how many Americans — and others around the world — are feeling about the dangers of increasing authoritarianism of the Putin-Trump era. With daily attacks on free speech, the free press, the judiciary and the electoral process, we are no longer witnessing what one might call a “creeping” authoritarianism.  It is a five alarm fire.  Yet still, too many remain silent and fearful, or they toss it off as benign buffoonery.

On April 4, when King spoke about Vietnam, he was going against the advice of many of his friends, who said to him, “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?”  King reflected on their challenge:

Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

The comments of King’s advisers sound much like those made by many of my well-meaning fellow supporters of Israel, who willingly choose to ignore the spreading cancer for the sugar high of an embassy in Jerusalem.

King added:

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam that was aired last fall on PBS. It’s taking me a while (I can spend just so many hours on the treadmill), so I just got up to the episode that discusses this 1967 speech by Dr. King. It resonated so much within me.

Given what we now know about how successive administrations systematically lied to the American people about Vietnam over the course of decades, leading to the senseless deaths of over 50,000 American soldiers and many more innocent civilians, one wonders if things would have turned out differently if more adults had recognized the urgency of that moment and turned against the war sooner, rather than just shrugging while leaving it to their kids to take to the streets on their own.

As Martin Luther King said in that speech, “A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time is now.”

Back on April 4, 1967, Dr. King concluded:

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Every 18 months, more Americans die by gunfire than died in the entire Vietnam War.  Every day, democratic norms are being further degraded by the astonishing corruption of the Trump administration. Every day, people of conscience are further confronted by the urgency of now.  Every day, we must decide whether to take to the streets of Pittom and Ramses and make our escape, or rest timidly in our homes.

As King neared the conclusion of his lengthy speech at Riverside Church, he quoted the poet, James Russell Lowell:

Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

King concluded his speech on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was gunned down, with this ringing proclamation:

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

There comes a moment when each of us must decide, whether to take to the streets in public proclamation, or to sit tight and wait. For some, that moment came when the last plague struck in Egypt.  That “night of waiting” was following by a day of decisive action.  For others, like Dr. King, that moment came on April 4, 1967.  For others, that moment came one year later.

For all of us, on some level, as we consider the events that are unfolding, that moment is now.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of forthcoming book, Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books)
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