“And We Win”: A D’var Torah and Invocation for MLK Day

This year I was honored to be invited to give the invocation and benediction at the annual Martin Luther King Day banquet held at the South Puget Sound Community College. It was an inspiring evening, honoring the life of Dr. King by invoking his legacy, by honoring local educators and awarding scholarships, and hearing from inspiring speakers including our Congressman Rep. Denny Heck and especially the keynote Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of last year’s Women’s March. These are the words I shared:

Thank you, it is an honor to be here with you tonight on this sacred occasion.

In the Jewish liturgical tradition, we read the entirety of our sacred Scripture, the Torah, the first five books of the bible over the course of a year. Beginning in the fall, each week on the Sabbath we read a section, beginning with Genesis and ending with Deuteronomy.

There is a meaningful confluence this week between our Jewish liturgical calendar and our civic calendar. For on this weekend, when we as an American society celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are reading chapters 6-9 of the Book of Exodus, which tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery, the story which we know inspired Dr. King, and continues to inspire us to day.

Specifically in these chapters, we read of Moses’s first confrontation with Pharaoh. Having been called by God at the burning bush to return to his people, to be God’s messenger, to be the one who will lead this uprising against an oppressive power, Moses goes to the halls of power and makes the demand that his people should be freed—“Let My People Go.”

And we know, at first, it doesn’t go over well.

But Moses is supported by God, who brings, with each demand for freedom, a plague. A symbol of divine power, a symbol of the rightness of Moses’s claim, a show of force against a ruler, a tyrant whose heart, as the text states, “was hardened.”

There are 10 plagues in all, 10 times that Moses returns to Pharaoh to demand freedom. First turning the water of the Nile into blood.

When the blood didn’t work, there was an infestation of frogs. When the frogs failed to convince, lice descended on the land. When the lice was ineffective, wild animals came to roam. When the power structure still did not change boils appeared, then hail, then locusts, then darkness—each plague increasing in severity until with the final plague when it literally becomes a matter of life or death.

And he won.

As Moses did in Scripture, as King did in his day, and we do in ours, we confront tyrants and systems of oppression. And we return again and again demanding change. First we sign petitions. When the petitions do not work we write letters. When the letters go unanswered we make phone calls. When the phone calls fail to convince we sit in protest. When we are done sitting we rise. After we rise we march. When we march we sing. When we are done singing we shout. And we return time and time again until it becomes a matter of life or death.

And we win.

Scripture teaches, and King demonstrated, that it is possible to challenge and change structures of power and privilege, that we can overcome oppression, that we can right the wrongs of the past. Through persistence and perseverance, through continuous action, by returning again and again we can live up to our highest ideals, and create a society that is just and moral and built on love.

And, there is always more work to be done.

So let us pray.

Source of All Life and Blessing

First, thank you for the food we are about to eat. Thank you for the earth and its abundance that produced it, thank you for the skilled hands who harvested and collected, shaped and prepared it, thank you for the dedicated service of those who bring it to us.

We thank you for the gift of community. For all of those gathered here tonight who join together in common cause and who in their own way work for the betterment of our society.

Thank you for this evening, for this opportunity to gather in remembrance and celebration, honoring the past, and envisioning the future.

Thank you for the life and legacy of Dr. King, for the work he did and continues to do through inspiration. Thank you for all of those who are our leaders and activists, who rise up, who speak truth, who challenge what is and show us not only what could be, but should be.

Source of All Life and Blessing.

May we be blessed with the gift of insight and vision.

May we face the future with open eyes and ears, hands and hearts.

May we act only out of love and compassion.

May we be vigilant in the face of hatred, vocal in the face of silence.

May we have the strength to rise up and return, and remember that dictum of the ancient Jewish sages: It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

In the name of all that is holy, good, and true we pray.

And let us say, Amen.


MLK’s Dayenu Moment

This week I wrote my monthly entry in the Rabbis Without Borders blog, reflecting on the confluence with the beginning of 348px-Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lectern (1)Passover and the Seders with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For my weekly message, I share what I wrote, and fitting as we move out of Passover this week.

The seventh day of Passover, beginning tonight, is a full holiday, and it is the day associated with the crossing of the Red Sea. That is the final act of redemption. With the crossing of the sea and it closing upon the Egyptians who were in pursuit, the Israelites were assured of their freedom. But just as one journey ends, another begins.

So as we move out of Passover, I invite you to reflect on what you are taking with you. What steps of liberation did you take this year, and what steps do you still need to take? Were you able to identify a personal or societal Egypt (in Hebrew Mitzrayim, “the narrow places”)? And as you celebrate and give thanks for how far you have come, were you able to marshal the strength to cover the ground that is in front of you?

I hope you have had a sweet Passover. And I wish you many blessings in your coming journey.

Chag sameach!

04-08-2015 09:00:03 AM

This past weekend, as I gathered for Passover seders, first with my family and friends, and then with my congregation, I could not help but notice that these sacred occasions coincided with the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, […]…»

For Equitable Revenue: My Testimony in front of the WA Senate Ways and Means Committee

One day after MLK Day I had the opportunity to testify in front of the WA Senate Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the Jewish Federation and the Faith Action Network about the state budget and opportunities for new revenue. I believe that our state taxation is excessively regressive, and there are means to examine new ways of funding important and needed programs. Here is my testimony as delivered:

Chair and Members of the Committee,

My name is Seth Goldstein, and I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community here in Olympia, and I am here representing faith communities and specifically the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the statewide interfaith organization, Faith Action Network.

As we gather for this legislative session, I do not envy your position. There is much demand for the programs that serve the needs of the citizens of the state of Washington. There are many decisions that need to be made.

Our concern is this: that you take a broad vision in your crafting of a balanced and sustainable budget, and address the issue of our regressive tax structure which puts most of the burden on those who can least afford it. We support the institution of new revenue sources that would distribute the burden more fairly and equitably among all. We ask that you recognize that it takes a shared sacrifice to meet the needs of all of our citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable among us. Indeed, the maintenance of the status quo on revenue will have the double negative effect of maintaining a regressive tax structure while at the same time cutting services to those who need them most.

I think about the story of the Exodus in Scripture, of moving from slavery to freedom to the Promised Land. It was a story that inspired the contemporary spiritual leader Dr. King that we celebrated yesterday. And it is a story which continues to inspire us, for it teaches us the vision of a new reality.

We can create that new reality. We look to the institutions of government to bring about that vision of a “beloved community.” We ask that you exercise the authority and the trust place upon you by the citizens of this state to do so through means that are fair, moral and just.

Thank you very much.

You can also see the video here:



Why I Have a Poster of Dr. Martin Luther King in My Office

Once in a while I will invite someone into my study, either for an appointment or a meeting, and they will look around in wonder when they step in there for the first time, as if it is some secret inner sanctum. The rabbi’s office is not a place one is wont to go when they go into the Temple, and perhaps some see it as akin to going to the principal’s office.

My attitude, however, is that although this is my personal space within the Temple building, it is for everyone. As I am in service to the Jewish community, the work I do there is for the benefit of all, so everyone should feel a bit of ownership over that space. I strive to keep it neat (not so easy) and comfortable for those instances when I have an appointment or a meeting in there.

And while it is a place for everybody, it is also a place I feel I can express myself. It is a repository for my books and files, my computer and notes, and I am proud of the decorations adorning the walls and shelves—family photos, art from my kids, tchotchkes that I have collected over the years, each with their own story and personal value. And the art on the walls: these range from a lithography my parents gave me when I was ordained, photos taken by a friend in the Hasidic community in Jerusalem, a print from local artist Nikki McClure, a photo of my father-in-law z”l, original Judaica given to me as a thank you gift, replicas of a map of the United states in Yiddish and of the “Holy Land” in 1875, a print of a Chagall from my grandparent’s home.

I’m particularly proud of my most recent addition, a gift to myself for Hanukkah—a poster of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had been meaning to get a poster for some time and finally got around to it.

While of course I draw from all of my teachers and inspiring figures from Jewish tradition, I find great inspiration from the work of King. I am inspired by King not only because he was a leader for civil rights, but because he was a person who was deeply rooted in a spiritual tradition and used that rootedness to affect great change. He was someone who “lived his faith” and spoke in a religious idiom. And he was someone who used the power of the pulpit to bring about transformation both in the individual and in society.

Our nation has identified King as a seminal figure in our history, worthy of a national holiday and our monument in our nation’s capital. As inspiring as these grand remembrances are, I look up at the poster of King on the wall across from my desk see how he is a seminal figure to me personally.

While very politically aware growing up, I was not very politically active until I became an adult. And now as a rabbi, I see very much my role to use the power of spiritual tradition to affect communal transformation. Each year at this time I make a point to travel up the street to the Capitol to lend my voice to issues of concern. (I went the first time this past Monday—the first day of the session—to speak in favor of the Reproductive Parity Act.) Or even more locally, I see it very much as my calling to advocate for those who have no voice, who have great needs but little means, who are the most vulnerable in our society. I feel this is not a civic imperative, it is a moral imperative.

A few years ago I came across this quote from King, and it has become one of my favorites:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

For all the talk about declining affiliation and the questionable role of religion in our society, I turn to this quote and I am uplifted—we, “the church,” have mission and a message to bring to our greater community.

And King was not only a social leader, he recognized community transformation would only come with individual transformation as well. As a spiritual leader he recognized that his role was to reach into the hearts and minds of the people he served, and use the power of religious tradition to inspire and create meaning for the individual. And for this, King is also an inspiration to my rabbinate.

Another favorite quote comes from his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.

King asks us—and I ask you—to identify your “isness.” Then how can you reach beyond this to fulfill your “oughtness”—your potential? How can you rise above your current condition to become what it is you wish to become?a How can you be transformed?

And if you want to meet to talk about it, I would be happy to invite you into my office.