In March of 1965, the Reverend Dr. King called for religious leaders of every denomination to join the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights. One of those answering the call was Dr. King’s close personal friend and passionate supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. They walked, linked arm in arm, along with other religious leaders, Black and White, from all over the United States.
When Rabbi Heschel returned from Selma, he was asked the question, ‘Did you find much time to pray, when you were in Selma?’ Rabbi Heschel’s response?, ‘I prayed with my feet.’
Rabbi Heschel’s words taught that the task of repairing the world requires not only appeals to a higher power, it requires active prayer. His marching, his protesting, his speaking out for Civil Rights was his greatest prayer of all.
This coming Monday, January 17, the third Monday in the month of January, we will observe Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday created to honor the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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It is unusual for Americans to honor an individual with their own federal holiday; George Washington and Christopher Columbus being the exceptions. And while the traditional way to honor these two historical figures is to hold nation-wide sales, the traditional way to honor Dr. King is with a Day of Service, making time to volunteer and to engage with your community, honoring the legacy of Dr. King with actions that speak louder than words alone.
It took a long time and a lot of hard work and grass roots petitioning to bring MLK’s day to fruition. The campaign to create a federal holiday in Dr. King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968, but it was not signed into law until 1983, by then-President Ronald Reagan.
One of its greatest, most vocal advocates for MLK Day, was the singer and musician, Stevie Wonder, who went on a national concert tour to drum up support for the MLK federal holiday campaign. In 1980 Stevie Wonder wrote a powerful song for the tour. Here are a few of the lyrics:
“You know it doesn’t make much sense/ There ought to be a law against/ Anyone who takes offense/
At a day in your celebration ‘cause we all know in our minds/ That there ought to be a time/ That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you/ And I’m sure you would agree/ What could fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party on the day you came to be.”
It is almost unfathomable that, even though signed into law in 1983, it took until the year 2000 for all fifty states to officially observe the day.
Dr. King believed in the prophetic model of the Hebrew Bible. He had read many of Rabbi Heschel’s books, including one entitled, “The Prophets.” He understood that prophets often stood alone as they advocated for change, and spoke loudly to condemn injustice.
In his prescient last speech the night before he was assassinated, King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now, I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Jewish tradition teaches that: It is not our responsibility to finish the work of repairing the world, but neither are we free to desist from it. Let us pray that each of us finds his or her way to “pray with their feet,” or their hands, their time or their voice to become actively vigilant in the pursuit of the peace, justice, security and equality.
Rose Lyn Jacob is the rabbi of a five-county area in the Virginia Piedmont, including Culpeper.