There is much recognized symbolism in the coinciding timeframe of President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in and Martin Luther King Day. Eighty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in the segregated south, our country is one step closer to his dream with the inauguration of our first African-American President. Less discussed, but arguably as poignant, is that the week of inauguration corresponds with the famed speech of another great leader, one that has inspired President-elect Obama, Dr. King, and billions of people around the world for millennia.
That speech is Moses’ farewell sermon to the Jewish people. In three discourses, Moses reviews the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, and outlines the code of law that they are to abide by as they go forth into the Promised Land. It could be argued that no other speech has had a bigger impact on the history of the Western World. Jewish tradition teaches that this speech began during the first day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which falls just days after President-elect Obama’s inauguration in the Gregorian calendar.
Dr. King was famed for his ability to draw on scriptures to recast the debate on civil rights and poverty, inspiring millions of people to translate their values into action on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable. Obama can call upon the values that Moses outlined during the very week of his swearing in, as Dr. King did on several occasions.
Our President-elect has a unique opportunity during his inauguration not only to invoke the legacy of Dr. King, but to draw upon a central moment in Moses’ final speech, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Jews have traditionally used this phrase as a call to social action, a mandate to seek systemic change in addition to charitable acts. Specifically, there are two themes President-elect Obama could extract from Moses’ final speech to the Israelites and incorporate into his inaugural address and subsequent policy priorities.
First, a strong economy is one that promotes shared prosperity. In his speech to the Israelites, Moses reminds them, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). According to the Center on Economic and Policy Research, only 1 in 4 jobs in America is defined as a “good job, squashing the myth that low-income people should just “get a job” in order pull themselves out of poverty.
Second, strengthening our social safety net is a moral imperative. Moses takes the opportunity in his final address to remind the Israelites of their obligations to help the poor and vulnerable. He cites the commandment, “When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). While an economy that creates good jobs is the surest path to rebuilding America’s middle-class, we must recognize that at some point or another, most people will fall on hard times. In fact, research by Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl shows that “a majority of Americans will at some point experience at least one year below the poverty line.”
Moses opened his final speech to the Jewish people by declaring, “You have dwelled long enough at this mountain…” (Deuteronomy 1:6-7). We in America have also “dwelled long enough” in an era of widening inequality and growing poverty. In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Dr. King strikes the same chords. As he addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, he reminded the crowd, “It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”
At his historic inauguration, President-elect Obama has the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of two giants, Dr. King and Moses, who called on their followers to fulfill a vision of justice and compassion. As we enter into a new era of American politics, let us hold ourselves and our political leadership responsible for beginning a new leg of our journey towards “The Promised Land,” an America with a more inclusive economy that focuses not just on ending income deprivation, but on promoting overall human development and access to opportunity.
Melissa Boteach is the Poverty Campaign Coordinator for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.