In a student paper at Morehouse College, a young Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “The function of education … is … to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” (se, 1947)
What Dr. King, the master teacher, championed then, and throughout his life and career, was learning embedded in moral pursuits. He believed in intellectual and ethical curiosity, and he wanted to know and understand not just his own people but also the other, as exemplified by his alliance with the Jewish community.
Did you know that the week after Dr. King was assassinated, he was supposed to attend the Passover seder of his friend and collaborator, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?
It’s always been true that people don’t know what they don’t know. But these days, too many people don’t seem to want to know anything new. And we don’t want to know about one another.
Long before we were quarantined in our homes, we were siloed on social media, segregated in cities, suburbs and exurbs, not just geographically but emotionally and spiritually and intellectually. We’ve nearly perfected societal incuriosity.
Many have noticed the world is on fire. Some act to put it out. Few wonder why, so just as often we add fuel to the fire.
Abraham, according to the midrash, also noticed the world was on fire:
“Rabbi Yitzchak taught: ‘[Abraham] was like a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a bira doleket, a burning palace. He said, “Is it possible this palace lacks someone to look after it?” The owner of the building peeked out [of a window] and said, ‘I am the Master of this palace.’ ‘Similarly,” teaches the midrash, “because Abraham our father [seeing the world on fire] said, “Is it possible there is no one in charge here?” the Holy One of Blessing peeked out and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe.” … Hence, God said to Abraham [in Gen. 12], “Go forth!”
(Bereishit Rabbah Lech L’cha 39,1).
Abraham noticed the fire consuming the world, but he was also curious enough to name it and question whether it must be so. We often think of him as a man of faith, but what is the nature of Abraham’s faith? First, he notices and questions why. Second, he cares about the outcome; he’s morally curious. Third, he takes action; he speaks out.
“One shouldn’t remain indifferent,” says Deuteronomy (22:3). We must get involved.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question,” Dr. King once told a crowd in Montgomery, Alabama, “is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
But Abraham didn’t begin with faith in God. In fact, he questioned God’s very existence! The world is like a majestic palace on fire and no one is putting it out, so perhaps the owner’s away?!
Perhaps there’s no one home?!
How does Abraham become a man of faith? He listens. He learns. He takes responsibility not for setting the palace ablaze but for mobilizing an army, a legion of family members and followers, those of his faith, and those whose faiths would grow out of his but who say, “Enough!” Abraham is, among other things, a warrior for social justice.
You think it’s an accident he calls God out at Sodom and Gomorrah, that he negotiates for every life he can? That this neophyte has the audacity to say to God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” (Gen. 18:25). This give-and-take, this divine-human shared responsibility for the state of the world is at the core of faith. When we find the world is burning, we don’t get to give up. We don’t get to go home. First, we must investigate the cause and put out the fire. And then, we must start building it again.
When we’re curious, we become holy firefighters.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on The Urban Rabbi. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.
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