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Voice of the Prophets

Sometimes, during times of upheaval, a prophet emerges to speak truth.

At an earlier convulsive moment in American politics, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke the truth of their time and of all time. They spoke of Divine Love in the face of human shortcomings and called on this great nation to lives of justice and righteousness, worthy of the One who loves us. 

This week, we remember these leaders - Heschel's yahrzeit is on 18 Tevet, which this year falls on Jan 15-16, and we'll be remembering him during family services and our soul stroll, and King's birthday is remembered in Beacon and around the country on Monday.

In this moment of political upheaval, when our safety and the safety of so many others is in jeopardy,  I share some excerpts from Rabbi Heschel's introduction of Rev. King to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968. You can find the full transcript here

Dr. Heschel: Where does God dwell in America today? Is He at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy? Is He not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums?

Dark is the world for me, for all its cities and stars. If not for the few signs of God’s radiance who could stand such agony, such darkness? Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.

The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves. Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.

May everyone present give of his strength to this great spiritual leader, Martin Luther King.

Dr. King: I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this evening and to have the opportunity of sharing with you in this significant meeting, but I do want to express my deep personal appreciation to each of you for extending the invitation. 

...I would like to mention is that I have heard “We Shall Overcome” probably more than I have heard any other song over the last few years. It is something of the theme song of our struggle, but tonight was the first time that I ever heard “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew, so that, too, was a beautiful experience for me, to hear that great song in Hebrew.

It is also a wonderful experience to be here on the occasion of the sixtieth birthday of a man that I consider one of the truly great men of our day and age, Rabbi Heschel. He is indeed a truly great prophet. I've looked over the last few years, being involved in the struggle for racial justice, and all too often I have seen religious leaders stand amid the social injustices that pervade our society, mouthing pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. All too often the religious community has been a tail light instead of a head light.

But here and there we find those who refuse to remain silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows, and they are forever seeking to make the great ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage relevant in this day and in this age. I feel that Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights to guide us through these difficult days.

He has been with us in many of our struggles. I remember marching from Selma to Montgomery, how he stood at my side and with us as we faced that crisis situation. I remember very well when we were in Chicago for the Conference on Religion and Race. Eloquently and profoundly he spoke on the issues of race and religion, and to a great extent his speech inspired clergymen of all the religious faiths of our country; many went out and decided to do something that they had not done before. So I am happy to be with him, and I want to say Happy Birthday, and I hope I can be here to celebrate your one hundredth birthday.

I aspire to follow the model of these prophets, my teachers. I struggle to truly hear the prophetic call today, in voice of leaders such as Rev William Barber.

As we move from Heschel's yahrzeit to King's birthday to Trump's inauguration, may we all strain to hear the prophetic voices in our day and respond to them.

Mon, March 1 2021 17 Adar 5781