Thursday, December 17, 2015

Vayigash and Suffering's Promise

While Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail he penned a letter to his fellow clergy explaining why he thought it necessary to engage in civil disobedience. He criticized their vocal opposition to his efforts saying that religion must serve the cause of justice rather than maintaining the status quo. In King’s lengthy “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he wrote:
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.
These soaring words gain even more spiritual power because they emerge from jail, because they come out of suffering. The essence of King’s message is captured in the words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” A man wrongly imprisoned can better affirm such sentiments. His suffering adds an exclamation point to the words. A depth of meaning emerges from his experience.

We discover echoes of these feelings in this week’s Torah portion. There Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Recall that the brothers threw Joseph in a pit, sold him into slavery where he was again jailed by his taskmasters. And yet Joseph says to his brothers: “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

Although Joseph had every right to be angry, and every reason to be unforgiving, he chose instead to see God’s hand in the jail cell that he occupied. He chose to see hope. He thereby redeems his pain and suffering. This is the quintessential Jewish move. We shout blessings at pain. We give thanks despite suffering. Jewish history attests to Martin Luther King’s words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

For centuries we exclaimed that even if the body is imprisoned, even if our people are oppressed, we cannot be defeated if we fill our hearts with songs and our souls with gratitude.

Perhaps only someone who experiences such suffering and pain can change the world. I therefore discover renewed faith in the Malala Yousafzais and the Natan Sharanskys. And only a people who endures oppression can serve as prophets to a troubled and fractured world.

Martin Luther King again writes: “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”

We continue to sing and pray.

“The goal of America is freedom.”

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