Learning from Our Past, Building a Better Future

After returning this week from accompanying a group of our senior class to Washington, D.C., the political nexus of the United States, I remain in awe of DC as an educator’s playground. Within the vast National Mall one can weave in and out of educationally rich museums, historic monuments, moving memorials, and breathtaking sights. My most favorite places, especially as an educator, for many reasons has always been the Lincoln Memorial.

330px-Lincoln_Memorial
Wikipedia

Built in honour of the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, the mammoth Greek temple style building houses a giant sculpture of a calm, kind and compassionate looking seated President. Lincoln is flanked by inscriptions of his well-known “Gettysburg Address” and his second Inaugural Address on the inner facades.

The steps of the memorial has been the site of many famous speeches, including probably the most recognized “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., a defining moment of the civil rights movement in America.  The gathering on August 28, 1963 drew an estimated 250,000 people in front of the iconic steps of the Lincoln Memorial and flanking the majestic Reflecting Pool.

What is less known is that moments before MLK delivered his historic speech, it was an american Rabbi —Rabbi Joachim Prinz who addressed the multitudes gathered.  In his stirring speech, he said:

March&JFK (2)“…it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Click here for an audio recording of part of Rabbi Joachim’s speech.

In one of her exceptionally brilliant discourses, Biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz, offers a compelling analysis of the role that exile plays in the history of the Jewish people.  

Professor Leibowitz refers to a number of Midrashim that regard the sufferings and the exiles of the Jewish people, not as punishment, but as a source of inspiration, one that serves a critical educational purpose.

Citing a host of pesukim (ex. Shemot 22:20 which declares that one must not wrong a stranger or oppress him), she attributes the reason for our many directives towards highly moral behavior to the fact that Jews must always remember that they were once strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. All are lessons that the Jewish people were supposed to learn from their own bitter experiences in Egypt.  

In these weeks as we engage ourselves in the national introspective days of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron and national celebratory days of Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, may we be inspired to look inwards towards our national historic experiences AND act outwards with kindness and compassion towards a more moral and ethical society – לתקן עולם במלכות ש-די – towards a moral and ethical society in God’s Kingdom.

Chag Atzmaut Sameach!!

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