Hope: A Tribute to Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Rev Martin Luther King Jr. and President Elect Barack Obama

Shabbat January 17, 2009 marked several important dates. The yartzeit of one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the last century - Abraham Joshua Heschel was this past week. The annual commemoration of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is on Monday. And Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Tuesday. Thanks to a member of the Rabbinical Assembly's Social Action committee a study guide was prepared to highlight the teachings of these men and put those teachings in the context of the weekly portion.
Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Torah needs to be interpreted and acted upon by us every day, in every moment. Torah isn't meant to just study - it's meant to be brought to life and incorporated in our very beings. Heschel was a social justice activist and he is most commonly remembered marching with Rev. King in Selma, Alabama walking arm in arm with him. He is the bushy white-haired, flowing-bearded man next to Dr. King in the most famous picture of that event. Heschel taught, "We cannot stem the tempest of evil by taking refuge in temples, by fervently adoring the restrained omnipotence of God. Our task is to act not only to enjoy; to change not only to accept; to augment not only to discover the glory of God. And life is refulgent with possibilities of creating the good."
In his "I Have a Dream" speech Dr. King talked about hope. He said, "Years from now you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope. For many months we've been teased, even derided, for talking about hope. But we always knew hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it."
Barack Obama in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 said, "I'm not talking about blind optimism here - the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores;...the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too."
All of them agree that hope isn't blind. It's based on faith in God and in ourselves, that change can occur - that the world can be a better place. When Moses was in front of the burning bush he wavered. He didn't accept the mission from God right away. He needed signs - proof - that he could do it. So God told Moses to put his hand inside his robe and it came out white. He put it back in and it returned to normal. God told Moses to throw his staff on the ground and it turned into a snake. He grabbed it by the tail and became a staff again. The signs Moses needed were in his possesion all the time, he just wasn't aware.
The same is true for us. We all have the ability to be agents for change. We just need the confidence. We just need to have faith. As Barack Obama has declared throughout his campaign, our mantra should be, Yes we can. As he takes the oath of office let us pray that he has the courage to be a positive agent for change and may we have the courage to do so as well!