Reverend King and the Ninth Plague

The changing face of the world demands that we make each others' oppression our "very own oppression."

martin luther king, jr. (photo credit: )
martin luther king, jr.
(photo credit: )
At the Passover Seder, we recall the Ten Plagues God visited upon the ancient Egyptians. Our sages explain that the ninth plague of darkness was not in the form of a physical affliction but a darkness of the heart, a communal blindness, a plague which has afflicted society from time immemorial. Exodus 10:23 states, lo rauh ish et achiv - they saw not one another - meaning they were blind to each other's needs; their lack of empathy and concern, their gross insensitivity and inhumanity led to the breakdown of Egyptian society. This biblical narrative of Passover has long inspired men and women of all faiths to recognize the struggles of others and make them their own. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose assassination 40 years ago was marked by the world on April 4, championed this ideal in his rhetoric and actions. I was privileged to take part in a national commemorative ceremony in Memphis where he was struck down. Dr. King understood that those who fight for their own rights are most honorable when they fight for the rights of all people. While his focus was certainly on the needs of African Americans, he championed the needs of all, and in particular those of the Jewish community. King found a special symbolism in Jewish history, a kinship with the Jewish people, and during his life, no segment of American society provided greater consistent support to the black community as did the Jewish community. From Selma to the freedom riders, Jewish Americans marched, fought and died alongside their African-American brethren. LIKEWISE, KING supported the State of Israel, was intimately involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, frequently referenced the Holocaust in his writings and speeches, and notably had a complete disdain and zero tolerance for anti-Semitism of any stripe and from any quarter. In his call for greater empathy, King recognized the inherent power in connecting the struggles of one people to another. Referencing the Holocaust, he wrote: "If Protestants and Catholics had engaged in nonviolent direct action and had made the oppression of the Jews their very own oppression and come into the streets besides the Jew to scrub the sidewalks, and had Gentiles worn the stigmatizing yellow arm bands by the millions, a unique form of mass resistance to the Nazis might have developed." It is significant that just weeks before the commemoration of Dr. King's assassination, Barack Obama similarly challenged the American people, saying in Philadelphia that "working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union. "For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life," he said. "But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family." The ancient Egyptians failed God's test. They were unable to grasp that to be fully human means to display empathy toward those from whom we differ and with whom we may even disagree at times. As the world grows more diverse, the open question is, how will we rise to the challenge of the ninth plague? If we hope to realize the dreams and ideals of democracy, if we hope to forge a more perfect union, we will have to learn to be more responsive to the issues of others across racial and ethnic lines. The changing face of the world demands that we make each others' oppression our "very own oppression." The Hebrew sages understood this need likewise, teaching the Jews to "judge not your fellow man until you are in his place." The Passover festival challenges us to see one another and to free ourselves from the shackles of indifference and to break the chains of prejudice. This biblical lesson was echoed by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who had an ever expanding responsiveness that allowed him to respect and honor the pain, the hunger and the hopes of others. The writer is the president of the New York and Washington-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the author of Shared Dreams, a book documenting the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s relationship with the American Jewish community.