Monday, January 18, 2016
Post Powerball - How Should We Dream? MLK Jr. Weekend 2016 and Parashat Bo 5776
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
I tried my hardest to stay up on Wednesday night, until 10:59 pm, but I just couldn’t do it. But boy did I dream! And yes, I dreamed big! Why was this past Wednesday night, January 13, 2016, different than all other nights? Because Wednesday night, I had the chance to win 1.5 billion dollars! Yes, like many of you, I got swept up in Powerball mania. As I held the ticket in my hand, I thought of what I would do with $900 million dollars (the sum after taxes). The chance of winning, even if it is a 1 in 292.2 million chance, forces us to dream, literally and figuratively, about a different world. As you may have already heard, I didn’t win last night’s Powerball, and I suspect that none of you did either. The Powerball is no more, so should we stop dreaming?
As Jews, we have a history of being dreamers. Jacob famously dreamed of a stairway to heaven, and Joseph was known for dreaming and interpreting others’ dreams. And of course, who can forget the famous quote from Theodore Herzl – if you will it, it is no dream.
But it’s the kind of dreams that we have dreamt that have made us who we are today. Powerball dreams, let’s face it, involve a lot of self. I heard one guy on the radio who said he was going to be two yachts: one yacht to sail in, and another yacht which he will sink by canon fire from the first yacht! Why not, it’s just 10 million dollars right?!?
So today, I’d like to talk about dreams, and the kind of dreams that we should dream about for our future.
In this week’s parashah, we read about the final three plagues: The plague of locusts, the plague of darkness, and the plague of the death of the first-born. I noticed an interesting similarity between the three.
1. Locusts – darkness covers the sky – literally, “10:15 They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened;”
2. Then, of course, the plague of darkness: “21 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.”
3. And when were the first born of Egypt taken? 4Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight (Hatzot HaLilah) I will go forth among the Egyptians...” And in verse 12:29: In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt…”
The connection that I saw was darkness. Locusts darkened the land; a darkness that could be touched overtook Egypt for three days; and the Egyptian first born were taken in the middle of the night, the darkest time during a 24-hour period.
The question is, what happened to the Israelites? Can you imagine if you were standing in their sandals? It seems like darkness is consuming everything they’ve ever known! Here is where we find something interesting – even in these dark times, the Israelites had light. The Torah tells us so, especially in the plague of darkness:
“10:23 People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” – “U’lechol Bnei Israel Haya Or B’moshvotam”
How could the Israelites have light when everyone else had darkness? Most of the commentators said it’s because the Israelites lived in another part of Egypt, Goshen, which wasn’t affected by the plague; but Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, disagrees – he says, “even if they dwelled in an Egyptian’s house.” There seemed to be something different about the Israelites – they could see light even in the darkest of times; they could see hope even when none seemed to have been found.
“If you will it, it is no dream” – a nation exiled from her homeland after 2,000 years of persecution returned to Israel. We Jews could see the light even in the darkest of times.
But this light gave us the ability to look outward. The interesting thing about darkness is it might tempt you to be more self-centered, to be more alone. If you cannot see anyone, how could you reach out to them? How could you ‘look’ out for them? Light forces you to look outward.
Light is the tool of the prophet – the tool of Moses. Perhaps this is the message that Moses was trying to teach Pharaoh and Egypt: oppression and subjugation of others might make you more comfortable; things might seem bright to you, but ultimately, it will lead to darkness.
Prophets use light to make us look out, to shine light on injustice.
This Shabbat, we honor a prophet of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was one of the most famous dreamers in history.
If Dr. King had a Powerball ticket, what would Dr. King have dreamed of? Fortunately, we know, because he told us, on August 28, 1963. In his famous, “I have a dream” speech, which we will study tomorrow during our Meet the Torah class, he states, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
What would this new light bring, what sort of dream world would a new light create? Dr. King told the crowd that day that his dream is - little black boys and black girls in Alabama, the state that was known for its extreme racism, will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…and not just them, but all Americans will taste freedom, when all of God’s children- black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
This is what light looks like – the ability to look beyond oneself, the ability to look beyond just your tribe, to others.
Of course, our country still struggles with injustice against people of color. This week, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, inan article he wrote in honor of MLK Jr. weekend titled Walking With King, quoted Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University that in Washington, D.C., “it is estimated that 3 out of 4 young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.” In Chicago, the total population of current and ex-felons among black males “is equivalent to 55 percent of the black adult male population and an astonishing 80 percent of the adult black male workforce.” Nationwide, the rate of imprisonment for blacks on drug charges “dwarfs the rate of whites” — despite the fact that “people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates...” A 1995 survey asked respondents in America to “close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me.” Ninety-five percent “pictured a black drug user” at a time when only 15 percent of drug users in the U.S. were African-American (about the same percentage as today).”
And so, we have a choice – we can choose to remain ‘in the dark’ or we can open our eyes and look out with the light that God gave us, to fight injustice.
The prophet challenges us to look beyond the darkness to search for the inner light, the light that God gave us, and bring it to the world.