On the Shabbat before Martin Luther King Day, you may wish to sermonize on Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. The Parsha for that weekend is Va-Y’chi, from the the book of Genesis. Here are some notes and ideas for sermons:
- Va-Y’chi reminds us that while our shared journey to freedom is not yet complete, we can keep faith and plan for a brighter future as our ancestors did. Even as Joseph is on his deathbed in Egypt, he plans for the Israelites’ return to the land of Israel, saying: “’I am dying, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up out of this land to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob’” (Genesis 50:24). This We too can work towards a promised world where all experience wholeness, justice and compassion.
- Discuss the history of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement. For example, many Jewish Americans went to Mississippi in 1964 to fight for civil rights in what became known as the “Freedom Summer.” Others helped register African-American voters in various southern states. In June 1964, two Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered with one African-American, James Chaney, after entering Mississippi to register black voters.
- Much of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act were written in the building that is home to the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, which has long been a hub of civil rights activity. Several early presidents of the NAACP were Jews, including Kivie Kaplan, a former Honorary Vice-Chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).
- Civil Rights and the fight for equality remain an important issue in the United States today. During recent election seasons, we continue to see efforts to disenfranchise groups of voters. For example, in 2004 many voting precincts in low-income and minority areas of Ohio were suspiciously understaffed and had fewer voting machines than higher-income precincts. Long lines created frustrated voters who left the precinct before casting their vote. The same year in Florida, it was revealed that a list of supposedly ineligible voters included black, but not Hispanic voters, and that many of the people on the list actually should have been eligible to vote. In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Shelby v. Holder case that invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing states with a history of discriminating against minority voters to change their voting laws without preclearance from the federal government. At the time of the 2016 presidential election, 14 states had new voting restrictions that were not in place during the 2012 election.
- Consider the parallels between the Israelite struggle for freedom and the struggle of African-Americans. First, there are common elements of enslavement, the desire for liberty, the role and importance of leadership within the community, the tendency within the ruling class to resist the forces of social change, and the ultimate triumph of justice.
- There is a direct parallel between Moses’ assertion of rights for the Israelites, and civil rights leaders’ assertion of rights for African-Americans in the 1960s. Pharaoh responds to Moses by rebuking him and making life harder for the Jews by increasing their workload. Likewise, southern whites responded to black claims of equality by making their life more difficult and threatening and assaulting civil rights leaders with violence.