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Dvar January 17 2020: Shemot and Martin Luther King Jr. Day

When I look at the work of MLK I’m reminded of Moses. Especially this Parsha, the first in the book of Shemot, named Shemot, I see parallels between the work of Moses and MLK. I’m not saying that MLK is another Moses but that I believe that MLK took inspiration from Moses. I think many leaders do.


In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to Moses. From his birth, because of slavery and Pharoah’s awful edict that all firstborn sons die, his mother protects him by hiding him in a basket. Pharoah’s daughter finds him and takes him in as her own. Pharoah’s daughter identifies him as a Hebrew and hires his birth mother to nurse him. And only when he has grown does he return to the care of the Pharoah’s daughter. He grows up within the court and one day upon walking amongst the slaves he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He strikes down the Egyptian and hides him in the sand. He worries that he has been caught so he flees. He settles in Midian where he marries and has sons. Only later does he return to Egypt to free his people from slavery and lead them to the promised land.


Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929, to a Baptist minister in Atlanta, GA. He went on to college to receive his doctorate in theology and only in 1955 does he organize his first peaceful protest. Like Moses, MLK needs to grow up and make sense of his values before he can organize and act. Perhaps MLK heard a call from G-d just as Moses does in the burning bush and later when G-d tells him to go free the people. In both the case of Moses and MLK they saw injustice and their intuition was to act, to not turn a blind eye. Moses saw the treatment of the Hebrews and lashed out by killing an Egyptian. Perhaps MLK, inspired by Moses learned what not to do by Moses, the reacting from a place of anger and impulse one can end an effort quickly.


King saw the injustices around him and spoke up, he began to say loudly and with others, this is injustice and injustice we will not tolerate. Like Moses who runs away from his crime, MLK is forcibly put in his own exile, a jail cell after protesting in 1963. Perhaps in his jail cell, MLK had his own burning bush moment, a moment in which G-d revealed himself and began G-d’s conversation with King.  Both Moses and MLK came out of their exile ready to lead their people to the promised land.


A piece by Evan Traylor written for the Union for Reform Judaism states: “from my understanding of Judaism as inherently tied to social justice, I’ve always created a connection between Dr. King and the biblical figure Moses. The comparisons are simply undeniable:

  • They rose from humble positions in their communities to immense leadership roles.

  • Both were flawed leaders that needed a strong network of people working around them to succeed.

  • Their most important work was during times of great oppression of their people.

  • Both spoke their truths to power – whether it was the Pharaoh of Egypt of the Pharaoh of Alabama.

  • And famously, both never fully reached that Promised Land.”


And just as Moses ends up standing on the mountain overlooking the promised land in which he will never see, MLK’s last speech was entitled: “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.” In it, he invokes the same language our Torah uses in describing Moses’ final act. King writes:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]”


As Traylor says, both never fully reached the Promised Land. As we saw in Judaism and the Civil Rights Movement, we must not stop, we must continue on inspired by the great lives and words of our prophets and leaders. Only then may we usher in a time of equality and peace.