Rabbi Hyman’s MLK Speech
At the request of so many, we are pleased to share with you the text of Rabbi Hyman’s sermon which he delivered at the 2014 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast last month. Rabbi Hyman was the key-note speaker at this community celebration.
I am honored by your invitation to share some thoughts on this morning of celebration and reflection. My heartfelt thanks extend to the leadership of the Talbot NAACP and to the officers and directors of TACL for the privilege of this moment.
It is no small task to speak with the community on this day when we celebrate the birth, life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. For this is a day of conscience and memory. On this day history and hope converge, our painful past is measured against the promise of our progress, and we are answerable to Dr. King and to his dream. On this day we are judged against the undiminished challenge of his mission; a mission bequeathed to us in blood and tears. He continues to stir our souls and inform our actions.
The challenge and burden of this day increases because there are still people out there who stubbornly cling to perverse and ignorant notions, people who clutch desperately the prejudice of the past. Even they cannot ignore the power and efficacy of Dr. King’s life and work. Ultimately, these folk and their descendants will surrender to the truth and capitulate to a society that rejects fully their bigotry and condemns unequivocally their racism. This day we celebrate the life of Dr. King, and thank God for the instructive and corrective power of his dream.
But, today, we also re-examine ourselves, for his challenge is our work. While this is, most certainly, a day of tribute and triumph, it is also a day of reckoning… for on this day we measure our progress against the promise of his dream. Especially on this day, the “dream” hovers above our heads and looms large on the horizon of our collective destiny. Who in this room does not hear his voice all the time? “I have a dream.” Those words, spoken by that voice, propel us, inspire and motivate us, energize and strengthen us. The Prophet Amos asked: “How shall Jacob stand?” as he envisioned God holding a plumb line to measure Israel; using the plumb line to determine how faithful, how true and how committed to God’s mission was Israel. Listen as Scripture speaks to the message of this day: “Said the Holy One: Amos, what do you see?” I said, “A plumb line.” Said the Lord, “I set this plumb line in the midst of my people; by it will I measure them.” Today we are measured against that very same plumb line. How shall we stand?
You know, Dr. King begins eight paragraphs in that indelible speech with the phrase “I have a dream.” We don’t need a video clip. We don’t have to Google You Tube. CNN need not show it every 10 minutes. Each and every one of us in this room can hear his voice, recall his intensity and remember un-mutedly both what he said and how he said it. And because this is so, on this day when we celebrate the dreamer and his dream, I am compelled to ask a question. The question derives from a story that you and I have read hundreds of times. The text, from the Book of Genesis, chapter 28, is the story of another dreamer, Patriarch Jacob and his famous dream. There Jacob sees angels climbing up and going down a ladder that connects earth to heaven…when he wakes up, he declares the spot holy and names it Beth-El, the House of God.
“Now Jacob left Beersheba and headed toward Haran. The sun was setting so he stopped for the night. He took rocks from that place and using them for his pillow he lay down on the ground to sleep. And he dreamed…he saw a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching to heaven; and angels of God ascending and descending on it. And the Lord was standing beside him…When Jacob awoke from his sleep he exclaimed… “How awesome is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
This is as familiar a story as any in Scripture. It was only in preparing these remarks for this day, did the question present itself, and I believe the question is as profound as it is serious. How does one sleep on the ground using rocks for a pillow and dream about God’s majesty, dream about the gateway into heaven and dream about the upright messengers of God? How do you sleep on a rock pillow and wake up shouting, “How awesome is this place?”
Some of you know that I am a Boy Scout. As a Boy Scout, I’ve slept on the ground more times than I care to remember. It is no exaggeration to say hundreds of nights, including two weeks last July on a mountain top in West Virginia! Let me assure you, that in all the times I’ve slept in the great outdoors, with Mother Nature for a mattress, not once…never…ever did I wake up and shout: “this is awesome – God is in this place!!” There’s always a stick jamming into my shoulder, a root poking my back, a pebble under my hip, a mosquito buzzing around my head! So, I don’t know how you sleep on a rock pillow and exclaim: “How awesome is this place. This is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Let me pose the question differently. How do you sleep in a filthy jail cell in Selma, Alabama, with images of bloodthirsty attack dogs in your eyes, the sting of water cannons still burning your body and the pernicious words of a despicable racist governor and sadistic sheriff echoing in your ears…only to wake up and assert with unshakeable surety: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ How do you dream that? How did Dr. King stake his life on that, when it was not at all clear that any truth was self-evident?
How do you go to sleep in “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice” and wake up believing that someday our nation “will judge us not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character?”
How do you sleep in the most vile of circumstances and wake up convinced that soon “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together?” How do you sleep on a rock and exclaim with unshakeable conviction: “How awesome is this place, God is here?”
The truth of the matter is this. The power of right and great dreams is never dependent on where you rest your head. Where you rest your head is never as important as where you place your heart.
The dreams that touch our hearts move our souls to action. The dreams that touch our hearts mobilize our spirit by the strength of their transcendent correctness and truth. The dreams that touch our hearts unite us, binding us together in common cause, compelling us to climb out on the shaky and dangerous ledge of uncertain consequence, moving us to heights thought unreachable and unattainable. That’s the power of the dream that inspires our celebration this morning.
One last thought. It is sobering to acknowledge that all too often it falls on others to make real what we have dreamt. Sometimes all we get to do is provide inspiration and motivation.
Think about Moses. Can you imagine his disappointment in not being allowed to enter Canaan? Surely, Moses must have said to God: “Are You kidding me—I schlepped them out of Egypt, I don’t get to go into Canaan?” But, as we know, fulfillment of the dream fell to Joshua and the Israelite leaders of the next generation.
Here lies the essential insight. Moses not entering the Promised Land in no way diminished the magnitude, the immediacy or the imperative of his dream: getting the Children of Israel to the Promised Land. Sometimes others nurture the dreams we birth. In no way does that lessen the vitality of our dream.
On April 3, 1968 at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. King delivered yet another of his memorable messages. The title of that sermon is: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The words of his concluding paragraph are familiar.
“I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter…because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
When Rev. Billy Kyles spoke at Union Baptist Church here in Easton, I asked him if Dr. King knew that he would not live to see the dream fulfilled. Rev. Kyles responded: “He knew something was going to happen. He was reconciled to that. But he knew others were ready to push forward, to march ahead and keep the dream alive.”
We are “those others.” Like it or not, the course has been charted, tasks assigned and expectations articulated. “How shall Jacob stand?” How will we measure up?
History is filled with examples of dreamers who birthed a dream yet were denied the privilege of realizing their vision. This is not failure. I submit that this is the consummate act of genius and generosity. With righteous and upright dreams, it matters less who fulfills them and more that they be realized ultimately.
The Rabbis teach: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
The Gospel of Matthew instructs: “Where your treasure is, there lies your heart.” Please note, Matthew did not say, “where your treasure is there lies your head!”
Sleeping on the ground with a rock for a pillow is not a cerebral decision, an intellectual option. You sleep on the ground with your head on a rock when you believe with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength that your mission is sacred, your purpose righteous and the stakes far too valuable to compromise. That’s how you sleep on a rock pillow, see God, and exclaim, “How awesome is this place. Surely God is here.”
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
And so we dream.