Why has it taken so long to soften our hearts to those who are different?
On Monday, we commemorate the birth of one of our national heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King engaged in a lifelong struggle to soften the hearts of those who stood in the way of complete freedom and equality for people of color, who, like our ancestors, endured the ravages of slavery. For the Israelites, it took several acts of divine intervention to obtain freedom; for Americans of color, it is a continuous struggle that has lasted far too long.
We read this week in Parsha Va-Eira how Pharaoh responded to Moses' plea to "let my people go." As we know from the story of Passover, it took ten plagues to finally convince him to release the Israelites from slavery. We learn that with each plague, the suffering of the people increased. Even when Moses gave Pharaoh the option of relief, G-d "hardened Pharaoh's heart" so that he remained stubborn and uncaring, refusing to give in to the slightest sense of empathy or compassion. But why?
Our sages tell us that Pharaoh was so evil that he required greater demonstrations of G-d's power before he could appreciate the consequences of his actions. The Midrash tells us: "This is the way of the wicked: when they are in trouble, they affect humility; but as soon as they have respite, they return to their perversity" (Sh'mot Rabbah 10:6).
If we examine ourselves deeply enough, each of us has been plagued from time to time by a similar hardening of the heart that makes us indifferent to the suffering of others. The good news is that we are not under the control of some divinely produced condition; we have the ability to change.
Dr. King understood this potential. He pushed us to question our indifference and to embrace a moral and ethical path that recognizes the rights of all people - regardless of skin color, religion, sexual orientation or any other condition that differentiates us.
These are the Jewish values that the Federation stands for. We are proud to recognize Dr. King's unique contribution. He devoted his life's work to bring justice to his people and in turn, he helped to soften our hearts.
On Monday at 7:00 p.m., I hope you will join us at the Mandell JCC for a program that will honor his memory and provide insights into the ongoing struggle for civil rights. You can reserve your free ticket at 860-231-6316 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here for more information.
We should emulate Moses by standing up for those who are suffering - and we should be strong enough to challenge those whose hearts have been made hard. On this Shabbat and this MLK Day, let us come together as a community and dedicate ourselves to bringing more compassion, respect and love to each other and the entire world.
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford