I am not sure why they call it the flu since I haven’t flown anywhere. A matter of fact, I have been pretty much anchored to a single spot on the couch for several days. Regardless, several days of convalescing from the flu has afforded me the opportunity to watch a lot of television. Considering the historic nature of this weekend it’s not surprising that my television watching has been inundated with presidential movies, history channel documentaries, and an inspirational made for TV movie on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Of course, with Hockey back, my family and I have also been watching all the games we can. I guess it is somehow fitting, albeit disappointing for us as Devils fans, that on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, hockey began with the raising of the LA King’s Stanley Cup banner as they celebrated their victory over the New Jersey Devils.
As I sat on the couch these last few days, in a fortress of tissue boxes, a thermometer, medicine bottles, blankets, and pillows, it became apparent to me with a striking consistency that a particular theme permeated throughout history. The men portrayed in these movies I watched had a commonality that necessarily bestowed on them the title of great. Whether it was the story of John Adams defending the British soldiers who fired on protesters in what became known as the Boston Massacre or the story of Union Civil War hero and newly-certified attorney Frederick Aiken who defended a confederate sympathizer who was an alleged conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln in the movie The Conspirator. Each man stood up and risked his reputation and life to defend those who were wrongly and unjustly being accused – even if the people they defended came from opposite philosophical perspectives.
This important notion of defending the rights of all people regardless of their view points was beautifully punctuated in the movie An America President, which I also enjoyed while resting and drinking plenty of fluids. A Hollywood glamorized Clintonesque depiction; this movie is not only heartwarming but is extremely uplifting. During a press conference towards the end of the movie the President, Andrew Shepherd, as played by actor Michael Douglas, delivered a memorable speech where he stated in part: “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free?” And while this Hollywood version of fighting for justice may seem filled with sentimentality and idealism, as I watched the real life battles for justice in the documentaries I watched, this Hollywood fiction seemed to pale in comparison.
Other similar themes persisted for me as well as I watched the more modern accounts of history such as the movie on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was shocking how long ago it has not been since these events took place. It’s hard to believe that it was a mere fifty years ago that racism was so prevalent and acceptable that people sat by as others were discriminated simply for the color of their skin. From the founding of this country, generations have wrestled and struggled with the true meaning of “all men are created equal.” Today, as I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama, and in the light of the blatant racism that was so pervasive throughout the 1950s and 60s, it was both astonishing and awe inspiring.
However, I can’t help but wonder what are the injustices of today that we will look back in shock on tomorrow? What is it that we as a community find acceptable today, yet we know in our hearts is unjust? What do we accept, in the name of we’ve always done it this way or we would upset too many people to do what is right?
In our over one hundred years of existence, similar to our country, we at Beth El have evolved. Over the years we have grown into a more inclusive and egalitarian synagogue where women are provided equal rights to men in our services. Yet, some have suggested we consider the roles of our interfaith families in our community. We will continue to debate and discuss these issues and ensure that we are being fair and just to all our members just as we must do on a larger scale in the context of our country.
Will we as a nation soon provide rights to gay couples that we offer to heterosexual couples? Will this country no longer accept lesser pay for women with equal qualifications? In the wealthiest country of the world people still go without health care, food, and other necessities. A great chasm exist between the wealthy and the poor and continues to grow as the middle class is seemingly forced to either rise to greater wealth or fall to a level of poverty. Will these injustices someday become antiquated too?
If Dr. King were alive today, he would undoubtedly be proud that we elected a black president but would be disappointed in the hunger and poverty that still exists in our country today. He would also be saddened by the rise in selfish individualism which sometimes pushes aside the importance of community as he believed that the strength of our country was based on our service to each other; something that we at Beth El are often proud of and practice each and every day. For me, I see it in the myriad of events and programs that our Social Action committee performs along with our community at large. Whether it is visiting the sick, cleaning our local cemeteries, shopping for those who are not able, or supporting our members in mourning, I am proud to be part of this community that works so hard to support each other.
But for me, the answer to the question if we will ever see such grand social changes and greater equality in our country is not a question of if we will see the changes? But, when will we see the change? As in the past, it simply takes a great person or more appropriately, great people. Our past generations are not the only generation with greatness. However, it is the great people of the past such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who inspire the generation of today to raise their voices against the injustices we see today. Martin Luther King Jr. believed strongly in the notion of non-violent protest. He believed that if we shined the light on injustices and that people saw it for what it was that it would not be a great man that would initiate change but that it would be a great people.
May Dr. King’s life inspire us all to have the strength and fortitude to shine the light on all things unjust and to come together to advocate for and be the positive change in this world. We as individual, as Jews, and as a community have the power to make these change if we just find the strength within ourselves to do so. A strength that I know exists because as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous final speech “…we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”