Parashat Vaeira 5777

Rabbi Leah Jordan, 27 January 2017


Are you ever surprised in the cold January weather to hear other people grumbling about struggling to keep their New Year’s resolutions?

A new year in the secular world is a funny thing for us in the Jewish community. After all, we already had ours. We hopefully have already spent time reflecting on what we did wrong and resolving to do better – so when the rest of the world starts failing at their new year’s resolutions about now, we should feel a little ahead of the game…

But a second chance to take account can’t be a bad thing. In a world that is in no small part pain and anguish and thwarted chances – and which feels more like that every year, it sometimes seems – how are we to understand the notion of pledging to do better? What do we Jews believe in? As Progressive Jews, we often talk about tikkun olam, repairing the world. This year of all years, when people seem in such disagreement about the direction they want the world headed – through rancorous national referendums here and elsewhere – and in daily news that seems particularly bleak, what do we mean by repairing the world? And what do we mean when we say we are in a covenant with God to do just that?

I can’t help but quote that overworked phrase, still so relevant, which Dr. Martin Luther King boiled down into one sentence: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

That is, despite what we see in the world, the injustice and the grief, we do believe that somehow justice will prevail in the end.

“The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” King got that particular quote from a man who wrote it down a century before him, named Theodore Parker, a theologian and American abolitionist. Parker wrote:
“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The particular cadence of the phrase, ‘the arc of the moral universe,’ carried down through the decades all the way to King. Along the way, in 1940, it came to Rabbi Jacob Kohn in Los Angeles, who did that very Jewishly un-Jewish of things and delivered a secular New Year’s message. Rabbi Kohn said:
“Our faith is kept alive by the knowledge, founded on long experience, that the arc of history is long and bends toward justice,” … “We have seen so many ancient tyrannies pass from earth since Egypt and Rome held dominion that our eyes are directed not to the tragic present, but to the beyond, wherein the arc of history will be found bending toward justice, victory and freedom.”

The arc of the moral universe is long but nevertheless it bends toward justice. What a thing to say as a Jew in 1940, right? What a thing to say in 2017. Surely the only way we make that true in the world is to put that belief into action, now, in this new year.

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