By Avi West
On a rare free Sunday afternoon, my wife and I caught up on our downtown DC touring. Our primary destination was the newly dedicated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin. It sits on a direct axis linking the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. This is a brilliant location, creating a triple testament to the power of words.
Jewish tradition maintains that words have power and stands in direct opposition to long-held, popular notions such as “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never harm me.” Parents may try to help a child assaulted by name-calling shrug off the hurt, but a society can not afford to simply ignore destructive speech. In Hebrew, the word for speech is dibburim; the word for things of substance is devarim. When we talk about the “Ten Commandments,” we refer to the Hebrew Asseret ha-Dibrot, the 10 THINGS. Judaism considers words to be powerful, concrete objects, or at least tools for creating realities. After all, our story about creation is a repeated chorus of “And God said…. And there was….” Destructive speech, lashon hara, can destroy worlds. The power of speech that can create reality is a component of what makes human beings an image of the Divine, a partner in creation.
The majestic stone image of Dr. King looks out over the Tidal Basin with great resolve. What backs up that resolve, and has remained a part of his legacy, are his words from numerous public speeches and letters. Fourteen key quotes are etched into the stone wall encircling the statue. I would recommend that one visit this memorial NOT as a tourist, snapping a picture with a statue; one should visit as in a pilgrimage, reacquainting oneself with the words that created statutes and reshaped society. Below are a few quotes from Dr. King’s speeches. When you visit, dialogue with them and reflect on how you can transform them from words/dibburim to concrete things/devarim in your life and your community’s culture.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Having just celebrated Hanukkah, the holiday of light/dedication/education, what New Year’s resolution can you make to increase your power of light? What learning can you do to reinforce your dedication to help banish darkness (ignorance and intolerance) and hate?
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” The pursuit of justice makes a society whole. How may justice “tzedek” be your framing of situations of tension, such as hunger, homelessness, the educational system, inequities in the court system, etc. in order to help resolve them? How can you educate yourself on these issues before the next election and research organizations that support this mission?
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We teach that “All Israel is mutually responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shavuot 39a). How will you demonstrate that imperative in 2018? But remember Hillel’s saying “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? BUT if I am for myself alone, what am I?” How will you help your Jewish community while also being a model citizen of the broader community and world?
“I have a dream…” A life of meaning needs a vision. What is the society of your dreams, and how can you leave that legacy to your children? Look up the words of your bar/bat mitzvah haftarah reading. It probably came from the speeches of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Ezekiel. What did they have to say about equity and justice? How can you talk the talk of the prophets by walking the walk volunteering in a non-profit?
I have a dream; in it, sticks and stones are used to build safe communities where words of truth and justice shape our future. We are the inheritors of the words of Abraham our Ancestor, Moses our Teacher, and Hillel the Sage. We are also the inheritors of the words of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Jefferson. One way to show gratitude for living in a country where we are free to say “these and those are the words of the EverPresent” is to study them and make them words to live by.