I woke this morning thinking about Dr. King's life, what today means, and the long road still ahead of us.
Oldest Son's school (a Jewish day school) is in session today, and each teacher plans a lesson to teach today about the importance of Dr. King's legacy. I told him on the way to school that today was a holiday, a day to honor Dr. King.
"He was a king?" Oldest Son asked.
"No, his name is King," I said.
"Oh. Was he a kids' doctor?"
I smiled. "No. He earned a doctorate in..." I wasn't sure how to explain this to a five-year-old. "He studied for a long time and earned the title doctor. It means he knew a lot about what he studied."
"Oh. Why do we celebrate today? Is it his birthday?"
"Yes, we celebrate the holiday to honor his birthday and all the good things he accomplished in his life," I said.
Oldest Son pondered this. "What good things did he do?"
"He, uh... Well, you know how sometimes there are kids who don't want other kids to play with them?"
"There are people who don't like to be around other people, because those other people don't look the same as they do. They might have different color hair or skin or eyes, or wear different clothes, or speak a different language, or practice a different religion."
"That's not very nice," Oldest Son said.
"You're right, it's not. But some people are not nice like that. And Dr. King worked very hard to try and change that, so everybody, no matter what they looked like, could all have the same opportunities to go to good schools and have good medical care and get good jobs and live where they want to live. There's still a lot to do, because not everyone has this now, and we can use today to make the world a better place."
Oldest Son brightened. "We learned about that in school. It's call tikkun olam!"
"That's right," I said, rather amazed that, at five, he remembered that. "And Dr. King worked very hard for tikkun olam."
"Oh. That's a good holiday."
"What do you think you can do today to help make the world a better place?" I asked him.
"Um... listen to you and Abba?"
I laughed. "That's a good start. What can you do for someone not in our family?"
"I can smile at people," Oldest Son said. "And I can ask kids who don't have anyone to play with if they want to play with us."
"I think that's a great idea."
I think of today as a day to work toward universal goals that Dr. King supported: opportunity, service, equality.
And for the past three years, I've made it a commitment to give blood in honor of today. Following from the Talmud, "He who saves one life... it is as if he saves an entire universe" (Sanhedrin 4:5), the service of giving blood gives others the opportunity to live, who might not otherwise.
Life is so important in Judaism that some laws, which are to be followed under all other circumstances, may be broken in order to save a life. The guiding prinicple is pikuach nefesh - saving a life - and appears, among other places, in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, where we are told that anyone who is able to save a life, but fails to do so, violates 'You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor' (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:16).
According to the American Red Cross, 15 million units of blood were donated in 2001. But that falls far short of the 29 million units of blood used that same year.
Please, if you are eligible, do a mitzvah, save a life, and give blood.