April 4th marked 49 years since Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. During his lifetime, Dr. King was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, and I had the honor of hearing the current Ebenezer Baptist pastor, Dr. Raphael Warnock, speak in Memphis at the American Jewish Aging Services Conference earlier this month.
Dr. King lived to the age of 39, and often spoke of not living to see 40. Forty is a big number in Jewish lore. It is the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert, and the number of days Moses stayed up on the mountain. Big things can happen within 40 years.
Dr. King often turned to the Exodus story which tells how Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land. For many, Dr. King was a modern day Moses who led a civil rights movement that sought freedom from oppressive laws and social norms that denied opportunity and justice for many Americans. Dr. Warnock quoted Dr. King saying, "I may not get there with you, but we, our people will get there." He then reminded the room full of elder care professionals that we have not yet arrived, and that it is our mission to push forward, to aim toward and stay committed to a project that is too big for us to finish alone, or in even in one lifetime.
This is indeed the message of Passover. It reminds us that we are in a stream of history that finds its compass in the past, but is pointed toward the future where we continue to work to achieve the goal of freedom and justice for all.
Dr. Warnock also warned, “In recent days, evil has gotten some courage, and good people need to get some courage and stand up against racism, anti Semitism, and Islamophobia. Stand up against bigotry wherever it shows up.” The Exodus is the story of leaving a narrow oppressed place, for the big open land of the desert, and teaches us that yearning to escape oppression and find a place where open minds and collaborative spirit can flourish is still relevant today.
Dr. Warnock’s final lesson to us was the need to take care of our children and our elders, and through genuine friendships, work together to broaden freedom and justice here at home.
I bring this message to our Passover and Easter holidays: That we reach across the table— Muslim, Christian, and Jew, people of all backgrounds—and come together to care for those who are most vulnerable and to build bridges of trust and respect.