Sermon—My Trip to Memphis
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
March 24, 2017—Parashat Vayakhel-Pikudei
Earlier this week, Judi and I drove to Memphis, Tennessee. We had some consultations that we had to do there, so we took a quick drive up, saw some sights, got our business done and came home. While we were there, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. I remember that year. I remember that day. Living today in Birmingham, and with my family history of my father’s journeys to Mississippi during these dangerous times, I thought I had become a little inured to the civil rights story of the African-Americans in the 1960s. I have told Birmingham’s story over and over again to people who have come from other places to bear witness to the struggles that took place in my adopted city. I have walked over the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and stood in the hallowed halls of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery. I have spoken at the Martin Luther King Community Breakfasts and at the memorials for the slain civil rights worker in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Lynn Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church are spiritual homes for me. I have read the epic histories about the civil rights movement, visited the sights, absorbed the story, and shared it often enough with visitors to my adopted state of Alabama. Really, what was left for me to learn?
Still, Judi and I were profoundly moved by our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. It captured beautifully the story and the passions of the marchers and the picketers who refused to accept the indignities that were imposed upon them. They refused to be belittled and made less than. They overthrew the shackles of inferiority that the Jim Crow south imposed upon them simply because of the pigment of their skin. The children who filled the Birmingham jails, the Freedom Riders who rode the Greyhound buses across the south and offered their bodies to the mobs as a sacrifice to change hearts and minds, the protesters who sat in at the lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee and the children who integrated the public schools and universities, those who risked their jobs and their safety to register to vote—all these people, and their families and their communities were heroes to me and our nation. To paraphrase Dr. King’s eloquence, each of these heroes helped to bend the arc of history towards justice.
What I found profoundly moving was the fact that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s became a template for resistance against oppression. It helped to embolden the women’s movement and Jews who resisted the Soviet regime and anti-Semitism around the world. The civil rights movement in the south gave fuel and direction to Native Americans struggling for their rights, farm workers who were organizing for humane working conditions, and activism for equal treatment under the law for gay and lesbian Americans. None of these struggles are quite over. Now, almost 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated standing on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, these struggles still simmer. It is naïve to think that enmity and bigotry just end with the stroke of a pen in Washington or Montgomery.
But looking over the past decades, hearts and minds have changed. The needle has moved towards justice—imperfectly, but it is still moving in that direction. We may never totally be free from these curses of hatred and intolerance. But we are more aware and more free today than we were a generation ago, and more than a generation before that. It is remarkable how far we have come. And it is remarkable how much work we still have left to do.
I am your rabbi, and my goal tonight is to teach you some Torah. This is a momentous day in the cycle of Torah readings. We have a combined Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, the final chapters of Exodus which brings the book to its conclusion. What a momentous story! It starts with the cruelest of oppressions, the forced slavery of our ancestors, the Israelites. The story then moves towards liberation and the defeat of our enemies. We experienced miracles at the Sea of Reeds and at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the desert, God made the bitter waters sweet so we could drink and provided us manna from heaven so we could sustain ourselves. We received Torah and a set of rules beyond the Ten Commandments to help us organize ourselves into a society of free people. And when we sinned with the Golden Calf, God showed us that our covenant with our divine liberator could never be broken.
The book of Exodus is such a powerful story. More than any story ever told, the book of Exodus has inspired the downtrodden to pick up their feet and march. More than any story ever told, the book of Exodus has exalted the spirits of oppressed. More than any story ever told, the book of Exodus has given hope to the hopeless and warning to the Pharaohs that oppression does not stand forever. More than any other story ever told, the book of Exodus promises us that we can move forward through the obstacles of history and find ourselves redeemed at the foot of the Promised Land. How great and how glorious is this story to the human spirit! Imagine our lives without these chapters of Exodus, without the thunder and the lightening and the awesome power and the miracles and the sweat and the blood and the tears and the journey from Egypt to Israel, from despair to hope, from cowardice to confidence to courage and then to faith. Try to imagine our lives and our civilization without this epic story of freedom and liberation with all of its personal and societal ramifications. Exodus is the primal story of what it means to be human.
So why, my friends, does it end with such a dud? Good gracious, after all of this, all we get is a tabernacle fund raising campaign and a small sanctuary with an area of 11, 250 square feet. Let me put this into a perspective that you will understand immediately. The area of the Tabernacle was one quarter of a football field without the end zones. That is how this magnificent book ends. The Israelites make the tent and its furnishings, clothe the priests, and then Moses sets the whole thing up. And there it is. The end.
There are many miracles in the book of Exodus. But here is one miracle that you probably do not recognize. Moses, now 81 years old, put the whole contraption together. Without any help or instruction manuals, he laid out all the vessels in the courtyard. He attached the poles and the crossbars and the curtains and the rings on the curtains and put everything into the bases to hold the entire thing up. He assembled this all by himself. It was heavy and a tough lift, to be sure. This is how you know that Moses was raised in the Egyptian court. Jewish men can never put anything that complicated together without messing everything up, losing some pieces, and forcing the round screw into the square hole. Trust me. I know this from experience.
And then Exodus is done.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this. The story starts with the depiction of suffering and then freedom for our people. But that is not enough. It takes us one step further. The importance of the Exodus is more than the oppression and more than the miracles and more than the laws and more than the forgiveness. The ultimate story of the Exodus is the Tabernacle, the sanctuary for holiness that our people built. Freedom is all well and good and much better than oppression. But that is not enough for a fulfilled life. We need to have holiness too.
The themes of Exodus; oppression, freedom, law, and forgiveness, are group efforts. Together we suffered. Together we became free. Together we received the commandments. Together we were forgiven our sins. But to erect a sanctuary, each person must do this alone. Holiness is an individual effort with God. Like Moses in the last verses of Exodus, only he can erect the Tabernacle by himself. Only he can put the pieces together in the proper way for him to have a place for God to dwell. Only he can create holiness in his life. Moses assembled the Tabernacle himself because he is the only person who can create Moses’ place for God to dwell.
Each of us is a builder. Each of us creates holiness in our own lives. And if our sanctuary has fallen down, only we can build it up again.
I didn’t finish telling you about my trip to Memphis. Judi and I found the Slave Haven Underground Museum. a small and powerful gem. It was located in Jacob Burkle’s home north of town and a few blocks from the Mississippi River. The home was tiny by our standards, a far cry from Graceland. The home was built in 1849 by a German Jewish immigrant, Jacob Burkle on North Second Street. The Slave Haven Underground Museum is a small four room home with no running water or electricity. It contained memorabilia of all sorts of pictures and depictions of what the Africans endured during the Middle Passage and their centuries of slavery. Much of America’s wealth was built on the backs of these enslaved people, and the horror done to them centuries ago still echo today in our society.
Burkle set up a stockyard business and built his small home in the middle of the fields, out of plain sight of his neighbors. He encouraged runaway slaves to pass through his home and make their way north, by foot or hidden by boats, to the free states of the north and then to Canada, where they would be out of range of the bounty hunters who pursued them. If he were caught, he would certainly have been killed. Burkle went so far as to head down to the docks, to the slave market, and purchase two slaves himself. After two years, he facilitated their escape so he could, like them, claim financial injury among his slave holding peers.
I found it remarkable that these acts of courage came from an immigrant to America, and a Jewish immigrant at that. What possessed Jacob Burkle to risk his life to helping runaway slaves? Of course you know the answer.
Jacob Burkle knew what it is like to be oppressed because of our story of Exodus and his own personal journey. He knew what it was like to be an outsider. He knew what it is like to say, as we do every Passover when we share our response to the wicked child’s question: “What does this mean for you?” You know the answer, “It is what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt, for me and not for you. For had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.”
This Jewish immigrant, Jacob Burkle took the Exodus story and built his own tabernacle at 826 North 2nd Street in Memphis, Tennessee. It was his place of holiness. He did it by himself. And his tabernacle was his place of holiness that bent the arc of history towards justice.
The book of Exodus ends with these words:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it,
and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out;
but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the
Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night,
in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.
My friends, the book of Exodus is never done. We never actually complete it. What we do is build a tabernacle in our own lives, each of us in our own way. We create opportunities for holiness. And then when k’vod Adonai, the Glory of God fills the place that we have made for it to dwell, it will lead us on our journeys as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
May you each build your own tabernacle, your own small palace of holiness and justice. And may k’vod Adonai fill its space and bring you to your promised land where the God of our ancestors, the God of freedom, the God of justice, the God of forgiveness, the God of holiness, leads you to go.