You Shall Pursue

January 24, 2014

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 10:51 am

This week, we read the Ten Commandments. These laws are seen as the bedrock of our civilization. But how many of us actually consider their meaning, and how they might impact our everyday behavior?

Today, I want to focus on the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” At at first glance, it seems pretty obvious how to avoid breaking this one; just don’t murder anyone.

But the rabbis have a very broad interpretation of what it means “to kill.”

They are not only concerned with preserving life, but with preserving life with dignity. In their moral worldview, slander is equivalent to murder. A person with a ruined reputation will face such challenges that for some, life will no longer be worth living, a fact that we see all too often with young people tormented and bullied by their peers.

The rabbis take this concern about reputation and apply it to their maintenance of the poor as well, giving them an opportunity to live with their pride in tact. It is considered a sin to force the poor to beg in public. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides taught that the highest level of charity was to give a poor person a job so that he could support himself rather than asking for support. And traditional community funds designed to provide for dowries and for extra food on holidays meant that the poor could lead lives with some measure of joy and dignity.

The rabbis understand that preserving life is one of the most important things that we can do, but they also understood that preserving life is not only a matter of maintaining physical existence. It is about giving people the tools that they need to build productive, happy lives in which they can feel respected and accomplished.

On Monday, we celebrate the life and work of an American hero who understood all too well that life alone was not enough, and that life without dignity is no life at all. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who believed not only in equality, not only ending segregation, but in advocating for an American in which all citizens were free to lead lives of dignity and opportunity. In his “I have a Dream Speech” from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (and how many of us forget that this was a march for economic opportunity as well as to end the scourge of segregation), he said:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King keenly understood, as did our rabbis, the true broadness of the statement “thou shalt not kill.” To him, as to our rabbis, it meant “thou shalt not deprive someone of the opportunity for a life well lived.” He understood that, when hope is gone, when the feeling that life is worth living is gone, is when people are transformed in their own minds and the minds of those around them from the authors of their own destiny to merely existing day to day. And merely existing day to day is not living.

And so King worked tirelessly all his life, against a great tide of opposition, through struggles and jailing and eventual assassination, but always with dignity, to hold the American people to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

How do we help to move our community towards a culture of life? How do we live up to the teachings of our forefathers, and of Dr. King?

The best way to keep from killing is to affirm the sanctity of life of every human being, and to reach out with profound empathy towards those who are struggling. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who teaches that the highest form or relationship is “I-Thou,” in which we see one another as full human beings with hopes and joys and, most of all, the desire for a good and comfortable life. If we can look at each human being, and see a person who is struggling toward fulfillment, we will not take actions, either consciously or unconsciously, to cut off their sense of dignity and self respect.

This starts small at home, with friends and family and showing utter respect and caring. Seeking to fulfill the needs of those who love us, to help our children and spouses and siblings and friends grow into the best people they can be by listening to and supporting their dreams, goals, and authentic personalities.

And it broadens, and deepens. In the same way we have empathy to our loved ones, we can have empathy in the broader community, and it can change lives. This past summer, when there was rioting in Egypt, I made it a point to ask every person I saw listening to the news from Egypt what they thought. Usually, I was talking to an Egyptian shopkeeper. I heard stories of families torn apart by tragedy, fervent condemnation of bloodshed, and a desire for peace in their homeland. By keeping my mind open, I was able to learn about the conflict from people who were experiencing it firsthand. And from a small dose of empathy like that, great things can come.

People’s circumstances may be wildly different from our own. We may not always fully understand what it might be like to be in those circumstances. But we can struggle mightily to get there. Reaching out to other people and keeping their dignity utmost in their minds will build a world in which we are all kinder, and more equitable to those around us, because it will allow us to see their true concerns.

And, little by little, by keeping in mind that it is a matter of life and death, and of our most fundamental commandments, we will come to build a world that truly embraces life.

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