Today bells toll throughout the country to mark fifty years since the iconic moment when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech bringing to a close the extraordinary March on Washington but looking out ahead at the great work still left to accomplish. A little less than five years after that day, Dr. King would give his final address intoning that "he had been to the mountaintop" and glimpsed the promised land of true freedom for all humanity. With uncanny prescience he stated on the day before he would be brought down by an assassin's bullet:
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!
This speech to sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 reveals the profound genius of Dr. King and the power of his approach to injustice. He never lost sight of the view from the mountaintop, even as he struggled and marched alongside his brothers and sisters in the fight for civil rights. And he never let being elevated to such heights let him forget the sickening and soul-numbing condition of those who still toiled to make ends meet or chafed against the chains of oppression. The March and the Mountaintop, never one without the other.
Dr. King demonstrated this commitment when he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize for peace in 1964. On that occasion he spoke in stirring words of what he believed to be true about the nature of humanity despite so much violence, hatred and suffering. These lofty words are a famous part of his legacy. However he also took a moment to make a startling and seemingly mundane comparison. Referring to his flight to Oslo for the ceremony, Dr. King reflected on how every successful trip requires not only pilots, who tend to be identified, but also scores of ground crew and other personnel who do their no less important job in anonymity. By bestowing upon him the prize, he continued, the Nobel committee was recognizing one of the pilots of the civil rights movement but no one should forget the ground crew! More than just an expression of humility, Dr. King's words were a reminder of how significant each individual was, whether the man who made sure his bags got on the plane or the sanitation workers to whom he addressed his final words.
Amazingly, this theme runs deep in the Torah portion being read this week in the Jewish community. As Moses prepares for his final moments he addresses the entire people Israel including everyone from the tribal heads to"the woodchoppers and the drawers of water. Young, old, men,women, and children, tribal chieftains and those among you who are not Israelites all are given the charge not only to hear the word G*d, but to enter the land of Promise. And then, like Dr. King, Moses makes known that the rest of the journey will be without him and ascends to the mountaintop to dream of what is to come.
The March and the Mountaintop. All must be included in the work of redemption, none may be forgotten and left by the side of the road.
May we continue to be inspired by the visionary word of the great prophets of our time and of old. May we march together ever closer to make the soaring dream a reality on the ground.
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