Rabbi’s Comments at TACL Martin Luther King event held at B’nai Israel, 2016
It is no small task to speak with the community onthisday when we celebratethe birth, life andlegacyof Martin Luther King, Jr.For this isadayof conscienceand memory. Onthis dayhistory and hope converge. On this day, ourpast is measured againstour progress. On this day, we are answerable to Dr. King and to his dream.
The challenge and burden of this day remain pressing in our lives. Unfortunately,there are still people out therewhostubbornlycling to perverse andignorant notions…peoplewhoclutchdesperatelythe prejudicesof thepast; benighted people who believe that outmoded attitudes, Neanderthal notions and insupportable behaviors made obsolete a long time ago, still describe our society and define our culture. Hard as they may try, even these doltishsouls cannotdiscount, disregard, evade or ignoretheefficacyand inevitability ofDr. King’slife and work. Ultimately, these folkand their descendants willbe defeated by the truth. They willcapitulate to the inexorable currents of history, surrendering to a societythat rejects fully their bigotry and condemns unequivocally their racism.They will be overtaken by their own obsolescence! But today, this daywe celebrate the life of Dr. King,and thank God forthepower of his example and corrective passion of his dream.
But, today, we alsore-examineourselves, forhischallengeis still our mandate. While thisis, most certainly,a day of tribute and triumph, itis also a dayof reckoning…for on this day wemeasureourprogress againstthe promise of hisdream. Especially on this day,the “dream”hoversaboveourheads, stares us in the faceand looms large on the horizon ofour collective destiny.
The Prophet Amos asked: “How shall Jacob stand” as hevisionedGod holding a plumblineto measureIsrael; usingthat plumb linetodeterminehow faithful, how trueandhowcommitted to God’s mission was Israel.ListenasScripturespeaks to the message of this day: “Said theHolyOne: Amos, what do you see?”I said, “A plumb line.” Said the Lord, “I set thisplumb line in the midst of my peoplebyit will Imeasure them.” Today we are measured against thatvery sameplumb line.How shall we stand?
Youknow,Dr. King begins eight paragraphsin that indelible speech with the phrase “I have a dream.” We don’t need a video clip.We don’thave to GoogleYou Tube. CNN need not show itevery10 minutes.Each and every one of us in this room can hear his voice, recallhisintensityand rememberun-mutedlyboth whathe said and how he said it. And becausehe remains so much a part of us;because,onthis daywhen we celebratethe visionaryand his vision,Iam compelled to ask a question deriving from a storythat you and I have read hundreds of times.The text,fromthe Book ofGenesis, chapter28,is thestory ofanother dreamer,Patriarch Jacob and his famous dream. ThereJacobsees angels climbing up andgoingdownaladderthat connects earth to heaven…when he wakes up, he declares the spot holy and names it Beth El-the House of God.
“NowJacobleftBeersheba andheadedtoward Haran.The sun was settingsohe stopped for the night.He tookrocks fromthat place andusing them forhis pillowhelay down onthe ground to sleep. And he dreamed…he sawa ladder set on theground, its topreachingto heaven;andangels of God ascending and descending on it. And the Lordwas standing beside him…WhenJacob 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 astory as any in Scripture. It was only in preparing these remarks that the question presents itself, andI believe the questionisasprofound as it is serious. How does one sleep on the groundusingrocks for a pillow anddream aboutGod’smajesty,dream about thegateway intoheavenanddream about theuprightmessengersof God?How do you sleep on a rock pillow and wake upshouting, “How awesome is this place?” Let mepose thequestiondifferently.How doyou sleep in a filthy jail cell in Selma, Alabama, with images ofblood-thirstyattackdogs inyour eyes, the sting of water cannonsstillburningyour bodyandthe perniciouswordsof a despicableracistgovernor and sadistic sheriff echoingin 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 outthe 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. Kingstakehislife on that, when it was not at all clear thatanytruthwasself-evident!
How do you go to sleep in “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice”and wake up believingthatsomeday ournation “will judgeusnotby 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 convincedthat soon “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, the crooked places made straight, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” How do you sleep on a rockand exclaimwithunflinching conviction: “How awesomeis this place, God is here?”
The truth of the matter is this. The power ofright and greatdreamsis neverdependent upon what you rest your head.Where you rest your head is never as importantaswhere you placeyour heart. The righteous cause that empowers our souls, that galvanizes our spirit and energizes us to act courageously, passionately and audaciously, that leads ultimately to victory and the transformative triumph of right over immorality, such passion emanates not from the head but from the heart. If you thought about it, if you intellectualize it… we would never place ourselves in positions of danger and jeopardy for righteous and pressing causes.
This is the message and unchallengeable wisdom Dr. King communicated in a 1967 sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He said: “I say to you, this morning, if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live…one day, opportunity will call you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. So you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at thirty-eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”