Mah nishtanah ha-yom hazeh?
How is this day different from all other days?
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is unique among American holidays. There are no traditional foods like turkey and stuffing, green beer or fruitcake. The Boy Scouts and Kiwanis don’t march down the street with the high school band. No bunnies or BBQs, no fireworks or football games or decorated trees. No one gives their dear ones Hallmark card saying “Happy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!” I know they are out there, but I have yet to notice any King Day blowout sales at the auto dealers or at Target. This day is different.
As other national holidays praise the achievement of men, this day lifts up the vision of a man. As other holidays bring to mind what has been, this one brings to heart what must be. As other holidays recount the past, this one shapes the future. As others points to from whence have come, this one charts a course to where we must go and how much is needed to get there. Other holidays are meant to inform, this one is meant to transform. Other holidays leave us sated, this one leaves us hungry.
In short, Dr. King’s birthday is America’s Yom Kippur.
Like Yom Kippur, it is a day of serious examination of our personal shortcomings and that of our societal collective. And, as we hope Yom Kippur will be, it is an opportunity for turning, for redirection, and renewed resolve.
It is the one time in the year which calls to those who would share Dr. King’s prophetic vision for this nation to ask “How are we doing? How are we really doing? How far have we gone and far much farther do we need to go to build the Beloved Community?”
That transformed world of peace, equality, economic security, and mutual concern of which we have dreamt may not come soon or ever. But there need be neither despair nor cynicism, for the opportunities for smaller realizations are infinite. As Dr. King wrote, “Though the Kingdom of God may remain not yet a universal reality in history, in the present it may exist in such isolated forms as in judgment, in personal devotion, and in some group life.”
We can build that repaired world in small ways, everyday ways, in the choices we make, in the attitude we bring, and the communities, like this one, we form. If the messiah is far away and ultimate redemption a distant dream, we can still create messianic moments and pockets of redemption. That, to me, is one of the essential messages of Judaism. That, for me, has been and remains at the core of our Temple’s historic and ultimate mission: to be a community which makes a Jewish difference in people’s lives and in the world.
And when we achieve such moments, regardless of what the calendar says, I think it would be more than appropriate to say to oneself, “Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!”