Martin Luther King Day should be a celebration of freedom, equality, and advances in Civil Rights. It should be a day of light and hope.
Last year it was
On MLK Day, 2017, I had the great privilege of addressing the community-wide celebration of MLK in Albuquerque. I aimed my remarks at the predominantly Hispanic students, seniors of area high schools who were recipients of MLK College scholarships. I saw the light in their eyes as they spoke of their hopes and dreams.
But this year, MLK Day was a day of spiritual darkness.
It was a day when Cindy Garcia watched her husband, Jorge, of 15 years, who had lived in the USA for 30 years, escorted through the security gate of Detroit Int’l Airport and deported to Mexico. Cindy and their two adolescent children stood weeping at the gate.
Is this really America?
Is this the land built by immigrants? Is this the land where the Statue of Liberty stands sentry at New York Harbor, proclaiming Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, “Give Me your tired your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
In last week’s Torah portion, God sends the penultimate plague upon the land of Egypt: Darkness! It was darkness so thick you could feel it. It was a spiritual darkness — the same darkness that threatens to extinguish the light in the Statue of Liberty in the United States today.
Darkness envelops us when children born in this country see their parents deported. Darkness envelops us when we see hard-working laborers treated like slaves.
Last week a number of us from Bat Yam Temple of the Islands stood up for dignity and respect at the Wendy’s on Highway 41 in Fort Myers.
Thousands of people passing by on the highway saw the demonstration, and hopefully our plea will reach the hearts of those who can bring about change.
The Chairman of the Board of Wendy’s, Nelson Peltz, is Jewish. I have tweeted and written him on Face Book to request a meeting asking him to subscribe to the Fair Food Practices program that would insure a living wage and safe working conditions for the Farm Workers of Immokalee, Florida, where 90% of the tomatoes consumed in the United States are grown. I want to tell him that it would cost Wendy’s one penny more per pound to buy Fair Food Program tomatoes harvested by the hard workers of Immokalee than it does to buy them from sweatshop farms in Mexico. That would come to $4,000,000 a year, not insignificant but as manageable for Wendy’s as it is for McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Taco Bell and all the other food outlets that have subscribed to Fair Food Practices. Four million dollars should not be a daunting amount to Mr. Peltz, whose net worth exceeds 1.6 billion.
Until such time as Wendy’s complies, the demonstrators will take our business elsewhere, and urge everyone to do the same.
Although, the Torah teaches, darkness enveloped the land of Egypt; there was light in the habitations of the Hebrews (Exodus 10:23). Today as darkness descends on our country, let us continue to shine the light of unflagging pursuit of justice and righteousness!
And if it seems like our efforts amount to little and that we are spitting into the wind, let us remember the words of the second century Sage, Rabbi Tarfon, a very rich man who was a champion of the poor and disenfranchised. In response to the frustration we all feel in struggling against injustice, Rabbi Tarfon gave us a motto that sings out across the millennia:
“It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)
That is why the Torah tells us no less than 36 times, more than any other commandment, to stand up for the dignity of the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
They cry out to us today with a sense of desperation more intense than any I have heard in my lifetime. We may not complete the sacred work of their redemption, but we must never stop trying.