“Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of us all, we thank you for this opportunity to come together as a community. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness- only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred- only love can do that.’ May the steps we take today bring light and love to our community in the months and years to come.”
Those were the words I spoke when I was asked to offer a prayer to begin the Dona Ana NAACP march on January 20 to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over 100 people had gathered for the event, including Mayor Miyagishima, state and national NAACP leaders, members of New Mexico Americorps and the Border Servant Corps, and many local citizens. I delivered the prayer through a megaphone (see photo), in much the same way as some speakers at the Civil Rights rallies of the 1960s did (at that moment, the image also flashed in my mind of law enforcement officials who used megaphones to forcibly control Civil Rights demonstrators). On this day, we marched together along a portion of Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, rich in our diversity and confident in our steps. At the conclusion of the march, we all took part in a responsive reading of a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in English and Spanish. That was appropriate for this community, but, even more, it highlighted the universality of Dr. King’s message from 1963, still poignant and meaningful in 2013. The next morning, I delivered the benediction at the NAACP’s Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday breakfast. Right after I was finished, television screens provided enabled those who remained after the event to watch President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, including his declaration that “our journey is not complete.”
For us at Temple Beth-El, we know that our journey is not complete. We know that we need to march into the future with a sense of unity and hope. As with the march on January 20, our steps forward should bring us light and love. What does that mean for us? “Light” can mean new ways of thinking about how we can give to the congregation, and developing new programs that will include all of us and the greater community. “Light” can mean being open to listening to each other when we speak, and making sure that what we say shares the best of our wisdom. “Love” can mean engendering a feeling of closeness with each other, offering words of kindness or comfort at the right moment, and respecting the privacy of others when necessary. “Love” can mean finding ways to state our opinions in a way that is respectful, clear enough to make the point but measured enough that the words will be taken as supportive and helpful.
In Pirkei Avot/Wisdom of the Sages, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya said, “Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a colleague/friend/study partner to sound out ideas and thoughts with you, and, when you judge others, give them the benefit of the doubt.” In a congregation or community, we have the opportunity to see everyone as a potential teacher because of his or her own experiences and expertise. When we learn from each other, we become like colleagues, study partners, and perhaps, friends. The saying says, though, that we need to “get” a teacher and “find” a colleague/friend. Rabbi Joshua taught that we should not sit back and wait. It is up to each of us to do the engaging, to take a first step, or even a risk, to share our ideas with humility and openness and to listen to others in that same spirit. Once we get to know our fellow congregants and community members, we will begin to understand their personalities and learn a little about what is going on in their lives that might require us to offer them “space,” understanding or counsel. We also need to be aware of how our own words or actions might sometimes lead to misunderstanding, where the Jewish values of repentance and forgiveness can guide our path towards maintaining positive relationships with the people with whom we pray, study, socialize and work to make our community a better place.
So may we be teachers and partners who offer wisdom, understanding and support to one another so that the steps we do take together will bring light and love to our Beth-El, the house/abode of the Eternal.