He Bent the Arc
Reflections on Representative John Lewis
The Israelite rebellion in response to the Spies’ report regarding the Land of Israel, found in the Book of Numbers, sealed the fate of the generation of the Exodus. Other than Caleb and Joshua, all over twenty years of age would perish during a forty-year trek in the desert; the children and grandchildren would cross the Jordan into Canaan. Forty years later, Moses, prior to his own departure from the scene, recounts, with admiration, Caleb’s bravery in confronting the mob and assuring them that, with God’s help, they would prevail.
For Moses, Caleb was a profile in courage. His faith in God and in the destiny of the people fired his courage.
I first met John Lewis in 1986 when he was the underdog candidate for Congress. We met for a morning cup of coffee, and I was impressed by his candor and humility. His leadership role in the civil rights movement was well-known, and he was widely respected as a champion for human rights issues.
He narrowly won that election and served in Congress for over 30 years until his recent death. He quickly became the conscience of the Congress and was not only a voice for justice for the African-American community. He spoke up on behalf of Soviet jury and for the State of Israel.
Some years ago, the congregation had a one-day mission to visit the National Holocaust Museum in DC. I contacted John Lewis and invited him to meet with us in the Museum’s rotunda. He graciously accepted and spoke with great sensitivity about the Holocaust and the challenge of quashing evil before it takes permanent root. He ended with the affirmation of “Never Again.” We sensed that, had there been individuals with John’s passion for justice and with his courage to speak truth to power, the Third Reich might not have taken root in Germany.
I had the honor of introducing John at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta. He was enthusiastically received by my colleagues for his unyielding opposition to prejudice based on religion, color, or ethnicity.
I was present at the Governor’s mansion to celebrate the publication of John’s biography, Walking with The Wind. In his talk, John reflected on the time that he applied for a library card in Alabama and was turned down. When he grew up, the government was all too often an enemy of people of color. His presence at the mansion of the Governor of a historic Southern State was significant, but there was still a long road ahead in the ongoing challenge of bending the arc of history toward justice.
It’s an American story. This son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama rose to be a leader in national and state government. Yet he never backed away from his deep-seated commitment to speak truth to power. He was rightly called the conscience of the Congress; more appropriately, he was the conscience of so many of us. This modern-day Caleb awakened every morning to continue his life work of “bending the arc of history toward justice.”
Completing this task is more than a forty-year trek. It’s an ongoing mission to arrive at the day when justice shall well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). May he rest in peace.
Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all the men that were upon the face of the earth (Num. 12:3).
Perhaps the Torah is correct in its description of Moses in the Book of Numbers. From numerous personal experiences, I know those words accurately describe our friend and brother, John Lewis, of blessed memory.
I saw Representative Lewis speak before large audiences. I interacted with him in large groups and in small settings. Always the same John Lewis. Always the same countenance. Humility that, ironically, was overpowering.
In meetings, Representative Lewis gave his full attention. “Perfunctory” and “automatic pilot” were not words or expressions in his lexicon. Mr. Lewis focused on people, especially on young people. I recall a meeting in his office with about twenty people. Representative Lewis invited everyone to introduce herself or himself. When he reached the youngest member of the delegation, a teenager, John stopped the flow of introductions. He asked questions of the young man. He probed. He was interested in him, and he appreciated that this teenager had taken the time to visit him in Washington, DC. And, as always, he encouraged the young man to learn and to “get into good trouble.” A civil rights icon and a man admired by many people treated a young man in his office as if he were the guest of honor in this gathering! What humility!
In May 2013, I was with Representative Lewis in his office on a Tuesday. In a rather offhanded manner, he mentioned he would be at the Seminary two days later. John was excited to go to the institution he associated with a man he greatly admired, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. But Representative Lewis didn’t tell me why he would be going to JTS. Only later that day did I learn he would be receiving an honorary degree and serving as Commencement speaker! He was too modest to tell me exactly why he was going to the Seminary. Two days later, I beamed as I sat in the audience and listened to Representative Lewis. His humility, shaped by the gratitude he felt in being honored by the institution he associated with the man he called “Rabbi Herschel,” was evident to all who were present.
Rabbi Arnold Goodman and I were among the members of the Rabbinical Assembly to have been fortunate to share a personal relationship with Representative John Lewis, of blessed memory. But his humble nature is an example to all of us. May the memory of his many good works be for a blessing and provide us with reassuring direction in these challenging times.
Rabbi Neil Sandler