Religious Life

Keep the Light Shining

Keep the Light Shining
16 Adar II 5779 | March 23, 2019
Rabbi Alexander Davis

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Jesus is the Light, I’m gonna let Him shine…
Let Him shine, let Him shine, let Him shine


Jesus? Wait a minute. I thought it was Peter Yarrow, a nice Jewish boy, who wrote these words. Turns out, “This Little Light” was a gospel song inspired by a verse in Mathew or Luke written for children in the 1920s. When the lyrics were secularized, it became one of the classic Civil Rights anthems, sung by Peter Paul and Mary among others in the 50s and 60s.

The song comes to mind this morning in “light” of our parasha and as I reflect back on my recent civil rights trip to the south.

We read at the beginning of Tzav, “eish tamid tukad al hamizbeiach lo tikbeh. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar not to go out” (6:6).

The eish tamid of the sacrificial altar was the Temple’s true ner tamid eternal flame. It was always burning. In fact, the fire to kindle the menorah each day was taken from the coals of the altar. The requirement to keep the altar’s flame continually lit was so important that it is repeated three times in the first few verses of the parasha.

Our parasha reads like a boy scout manual. It explains how to tend the altar’s flame, whose job it is to remove the ashes, the uniform of the Kohanim and more. But read closely, it becomes a message about a different kind of fire. V’haeish al hamizbeich tukad bo lo tikbeh. Rather than read, “the fire on the altar, do not extinguish it,” chasidic commentaries read, “the fire bo/in the altar, do not extinguish him.”  That is to say, there must be a flame within the people, a fire of passion, a fire of fervor, a burning desire.

I want to tell you about that kind of fire, the fire I recently experienced on The Well’s civil rights trip. Two weeks ago, thirty of us traveled to the South. We toured museums and memorials. We studied, and we sang. We davened, and we mourned. The things we saw were powerful, at times gut wrenching. This was not a fun trip. It was an important trip.

On the first day of our trip, we visited the tomb for Dr King in Atlanta where there is an eternal flame. They literally call it an eternal flame. The sign at its base reads, “The eternal flame symbolizes the continuing effort to realize Dr Kings ideas for the Beloved Community, which requires lasting personal commitment, that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.” I want to make sure you caught that. It is not a memorial flame for Dr King. The sign says it “the eternal flame symbolizes the continuing effort to realize Dr King’s ideas.” It is a light inspired by King and others that continues to burn.

This memorial, to say nothing of the new one in Montgomery, was moving. But even more than the places, it was the people that made the biggest impression. Given all we learned about lynching, about segregation, about dehumanization, it was possible to end the trip in a very dark space. But the people we met were burning with a passion. Their light helped push back the darkness.

Rip Patton, shined with a light of learning. Joanne Bland burned with the light of justice. Bishop Woods glowed with the light of God.

Let it shine…

We met Rip Patton by chance. After a very long day in Montgomery, we were planning on just stopping outside the Greyhound bus station to read a few signs about the Freedom Riders. We were finishing viewing the exhibit when a car drove up next to us. A man inside rolled down his window and started talking to a few of us. I got a sense he had something to say and asked him if he’d be willing to tell his story to the group. For the next 45 minutes, we sat on his every word as he walked us through the history of the Freedom Riders.

In 1961, Patton was 21 years old living in Nashville. At the time, the Supreme Court had ruled segregated buses unconstitutional. But the south ignored the ruling. Patton along with dozens of others, set out to challenge the ruling. Not knowing what he might face on the journey, he and the others wrote a last-will-and-testament before boarding the buses.  

When Patton’s bus reached Jackson, Mississippi, he was arrested. His mother was shocked to see him on national news but not surprised. He had been arrested before for sit-ins at lunch counters. Because of his involvement, Patton was expelled from college. But his efforts contributed to one of the first successful civil rights efforts that gained national attention.

When he let us go, we got back on the bus and quickly started googling him. We found him interviewed on Oprah, and articles written. He regularly speaks to groups and we were glad he stopped us to share his story. Patton shined with the light of learning.

Let him shine…

She wasn’t a bishop, but Joanne Bland put the fear of God into us in charging us to, “get up off our behinds. Don’t just to learn history. Be history makers.” And as Selma’s youngest protester, she is one to talk.

By the time Bland was 11 years old, she had been arrested 13 times in her struggle against Jim Crow, what she calls, America’s apartheid. She gave us a tour of Selma and showed us where the famous march began. She told us what she experienced on that march, how she was scared, how her sister was beaten but how she marched on.

Later in the morning, we were joined by a high school group from Connecticut also learning about civil rights. Bland’s words encouraging those young people to step up and get involved stick with me: “Movements are like jigsaw puzzles,” she said. “Everybody represents a piece. Without your piece, the change you want won’t happen, because the puzzle’s incomplete.” Joanne Bland shined with the light of justice.

Let her shine…

Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods is the son of a Baptist minister, the brother of Baptist ministers, the father of Baptist ministers. In short, he’s got God in his blood. And God in his voice and his feet. Woods led us through Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. It had been the site of the violent civil rights protest with police using water cannons and dogs to hold back marchers. As Bishop Woods told us his story of being arrested and beaten, all of a sudden he would burst into song and dance. And we joined in.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round
Turn me ’round, turn me ’round
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round
I’m gonna keep on walkin’ Keep on talkin’
Marchin’ to that freedom land

Bishop Woods burned with a light of faith, of God. He is a self-described foot soldier for God who radiates the belief that the God of love, the God who desires justice is working through him to bring love and justice to the world.

Let him shine…

For another time, I want to tell you about Ronnie Leet one of the four Jews left in Selma. He too has a passion for keeping the ner tamid of Temple Mishkan Israel burning. There is much to tell. So, I’ll reserve that for a later date.

Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tikbeh. The Talmud Yerushalmi offers an unexpected explanation of this verse. “Don’t extinguish the fire even when you travel lo tikhbeh af b’masaaot.” Commentaries explain that often when one travels, their commitment to and enthusiasm for Jewish tradition wanes. They are away from home; it is hard to keep the commandments, so they let them slip. I think about people who never miss having Shabbat dinner when they are home. But when they are on spring break, they are not are not as diligent. About such a case, the Torah encourages, “don’t let the fire extinguish even when you travel.”

For my travel group, not only did the flame not diminish, I dare say it grew. Each day included study and song, prayer and reflection and the inspiration of Rip Patton, Joanne Bland and Bishop Wood.

Our world still needs their light. But sadly, the generation who were on the front lines literally of the civil rights movement will not be around much longer. And so, we are called upon to bear their torch, to keep lit the fire of justice, of learning, of faith. We must be, “the continuing effort to realize Dr Kings ideas” and ideals. And this requires a personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles. We are called upon to sing out, “This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine…”

Shabbat Shalom