01/24/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

More Difficult Than Splitting the Sea: Dr. King's Legacy

This past Monday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth and legacy was celebrated in our country on the same day that America marked the 57th inauguration in our nation's history and, of course, the second for President Barack Obama.

There is a great paradox in the kind of struggles like those championed by Dr. King. The end goal is a beloved community, a society which judges by content of character and not by color of skin, nor by any separation into categories, creeds or class. However, to get to the mountaintop so stirringly glimpsed by Dr. King in his last days, he had to speak plainly about these divisions, not shy away from pointing out disparities and not be afraid to disturb the status quo. To bring real unity there must be honest appraisal of disparity and commitment to bring people together through respect for their differences.

Thus, taking a stand for social justice always requires pointing out inequality, despite the inevitable charges of disturbing the peace, engaging in class warfare, or being a divider not a uniter.

This powerful dynamic of recognizing difference in order to advance a more just society goes back much further than the milestones for equality invoked by President Obama in his speech. In fact, you can go backward from Stonewall, to Selma, to Seneca Falls to Sinai and the Splitting of the Sea -- the culminating moment of the liberation of the Israelites from bondage and the opening chapter of our life as a free people. At that moment, the entire people Israel -- men, women and children -- sang joyfully the Song of the Sea.

A peculiar but telling story is part of the rabbinic association with the Splitting of the Sea. A Roman Matron asks the sage Rabbi Yossi what does the Holy One do to pass the time since the six days of Creation. His surprising answer is that G*d arranges marriages. Laughing at this, the Roman insists that she could do a better and quicker job. She hastily arranges for 1,000 of her male slaves and 1,000 of her female slaves to be summoned and ordered to marry. She is satisfied with her handiwork until the next morning when the hapless newlyweds show up with looks of contempt for each other and even worse signs of a night spent in anything but marital bliss. From this we learn, the story concludes, that bringing two people together into a loving relationship is "more difficult than splitting the sea."

The story certainly makes a point about G*d the matchmaker, but why compare bringing couples together with the act of splitting the Reed Sea apart? Perhaps hinted here is the profound insight that the only foundation on which a successful union can be set is one in which each partner achieves equality and respect as a distinct individual.

Only by championing the fullness of another's worth, the recognition of her humanity, the necessity of his livelihood, and the indispensability of their participation in society can we speak of fulfilling our nation's promise and responding to our Creator's call. Only then can our voices join again in unison to sing the song of freedom.