MLK’s Passover lesson

The Kennedy administration anxiously prepared to contain the violence they expected at the 1963 march on Washington.  Some implemented plans included: 1) all elective surgeries at area hospitals were postponed, freeing up 350 hospital beds to absorb the wounded; 2) 300 helicopters were brought in to manage more than 70 rehearsed disaster scenarios; 3) judges were on round-the-clock standby and more than 300 inmates were relocated to make prison cells available; 4) 15,000 special troops were mobilized at Fort Bragg to supplement 4,000 deployed special forces, as DC was subject to the largest peacetime military buildup in our nation’s history.  Robert Kennedy did order that all of the District’s police dogs remain in their kennels to avoid any repetition of ugly memories of Birmingham.  Of course, in the end, the March itself proved to be entirely non-violent.

This week’s convergence of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Passover invites a timely lesson from a Reverend whose sermons so often drew upon the Hebrew Bible.  The movement led by Reverend King brought the Exodus to life.  He often derived inspiration from the parting waters of the Red Sea and from the mighty waters of justice. 

Curiously, there is no appearance of the ‘Song of the Sea’ in our Haggadah.  Why?  Perhaps to discourage gloating.  Perhaps to avoid misrepresenting the complexities and reversals that would follow in navigating from the seashore to the Promised Land.  But maybe the sages sought to chart the right time and place for the Song.  Rather than opening the Festival with it, the spirit of song belongs at the end of the Festival.  Indeed, this year the final two days are filled with song: day 7, the ‘Song of the Sea’; day 8, the Festival’s biblical love-scroll, the Song of Songs.  If our Seder ends on a note of praise, then our Festival ends sounding a note of love.

Non-violence for Reverend King could be realized by way of justice, dignity, and love.  Consider a story he once shared in a 1957 sermon delivered in Detroit.

“Some time ago, my brother and I were driving from Atlanta to Chattanooga…It was late at night, and for some reason most of the drivers were discourteous that night They just didn’t dim their lights as they approached our car.  Everybody was forgetting to dim lights that night And my brother got angry, and he said, “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along this highway and fails to dim its lights, I’m going to refuse to dim mine, and I’m going to keep these lights on in all of their glaring outpour.” And I looked up and I said, “Wait a minute. Don’t you do that. For if you refuse to dim your lights, there will be a little too much light on this highway [laughter], and may end up in destruction for all of us.  Somebody will have to have sense enough on this highway to dim their lights.” [laughter] And maybe here we find an analogy to the whole struggle of life. Somebody must have sense enough to dim their lights (right). Hate begets hate. Force begets force. Violence begets violence. Toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral ending in destruction for everybody.”

Love begets love.  This year, internalizing the legacies of Pesah and MLK, may we note that the arc of our Festival bends toward that love.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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