Celebrating MLK Day 2011
Remarks of Rabbi David Reiner
January 17, 2011
Don't wait for the Dream, work for the Dream!
The Psalmist writes: "Adonai s'fatai tiftach, ufi yagid tehilatecha—God, open up my lips, that my mouth may declare your glory."
Honored and Esteemed Guests:
In 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, stating that America was a place where toleration was not "a gift of indulgence," but an expectation. Washington wrote that the United States government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance [and] requires only that [those] who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens." These words express the vision and dream of one of our nation's most noble founding fathers: our nation is to be a land of equality.
That vision was re-articulated decades later as Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior marched on Washington. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Reverend King shared his dream of a nation freed from "the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." That dream remains alive today, as we continue to push that dream towards reality, marching on "till victory is won."
Our nation has changed tremendously since that August day in 1963. And yet, the vision, the Dream of Reverend King, has not yet been fully realized. There is more work to be done. While it may be tempting to sit back and wait for the world to change around us, we must not stop. We must work towards equality in our nation. We must continue to promote the principles of non-violence in our society. And we must not wait for Reverend King's Dream to become reality; we must work for the Dream!
We all have dreams…
Early in the Biblical Book of Exodus, as Moses is tending to the flocks of his father-in-law he encounters the Divine Presence in a talking, burning bush, a manner that can only be described as "Dream-like." God says to Moses,
"I have marked well the plight of My people…and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the hands of their enemies (miyad m'tzarim/mitzrayim), and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…"
For Moses, these words were a vision for the future, a dream. This was the start of his journey with the Israelites from bondage, through the wilderness, and towards the Promised Land.
Reverend King's Dream also was the fulfillment of a Promised Land, a vision for the future. In Reverend King's Promised Land, there was more than milk and honey flowing; "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
There are many who have sadly realized the finality of life before the fulfillment of their dreams. This is a tragic reality, but one which must not dissuade us from our resolve. Even Moses died without entering the Promised Land or even seeing the people that he led through the desert enter the land. Indeed, as Reverend King once wrote, so many of us fall short of seeing our dreams fulfilled, that it is "a hallmark of our mortal lives."
How then must we respond to this fear of unfulfilled dreams? The fear that accompanies this reality pulls us in different directions.
We may very well retreat into a life surrounded by a shell of bitterness and anger, never working towards a dream, echoing the opening lines of Ecclesiastes in our minds, our words, and our deeds, "Utter futility! Utter futility! All is futile!" Such behavior will ultimately prove utterly useless: with no dreams, no desires, no drive, no commitment, there will be no accomplishments, no changes, no amelioration of the ills that plague our world.
Instead, we may, nay, we must react to the exigent reality of our world by working towards the fulfillment of our dreams. The teachings of the prophet Jeremiah offer us an uplifting approach to a discouraging reality, "Woe unto me for my hurt, my wound is severe…This is but a sickness and I must bear it." We must, as Reverend King once wrote, willingly accept "unwanted and unfortunate circumstances, even as we still cling to a radiant [and infinite] hope."
We must take that disappointment and fear which threaten to derail our dreams and transform them into a force, a force of good, a force that enables us to fulfill our hopes and our dreams. We must not wait for our dreams to become reality; we must work for our dreams.
Passivity is tempting, but it must be recognized and overcome.
I am reminded of a story about a devout man living somewhere in upstate New York. One evening in the middle of the winter, the weatherman warns that a confluence of fronts is going to create the biggest snow storm ever. The devout man says to himself, "I will be fine; God will provide." The next day the storm hits, and the weather is terrible. Trees are down all over, power is out, and an arctic blast of air makes the temperature the coldest on record. An evacuation is declared and police officers knock on every door to urge residents to leave. The devout man stays put, telling himself, "God will provide." After a day of heavy snow, about four feet have accumulated, and there is no end in sight. The National Guard drives through town to evacuate anyone who might still be around. The man still refuses to leave his home, reminding himself, "God will provide." Band after band of lake effect drop ten feet of snow on the town; a helicopter comes to rescue the man because there is no way to get through all the snow, but the man still refuses to leave his home. "God will provide." The man does not survive the storm, he goes to heaven, and when he arrives he explains to God what happened and asks, "Why did you not provide for me?" Without hesitation God responds, "What are you talking about? I sent the meteorologist, the policemen, the national guard, and the helicopter."
I share this with you to illustrate an important point: While it is tempting to wait for divine or human intervention, to provide us with that which we need, we must avail ourselves of the resources at our disposal towards the fulfillment of our vision. Had the Ancient Israelites not eaten the manna provided in the desert, they would have never even made it to see the Promised Land.
Indeed, the changes in our nation since 1963 are significant and impressive. Nevertheless, our work is not done, and we cannot wait for changes to occur around us.
Almost exactly two years ago this day, Barak Hussein Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of these United States of America. I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time, and while most of my classmates in seminary gathered around televisions to watch the inauguration, I listened to the speeches as I drove around the less affluent ghettos of Cincinnati. In an hour pregnant with so much hope for a brighter future, it was just another day in the slums. Heavily bundled drug dealers stood on corners and sat on stoops outside burnt buildings and boarded businesses. As I was hearing how far we have come as a nation, I was seeing how much further we have to go.
We have come far, but we still have far to go. Our nation's airwaves are still plagued with bigoted paranoia. Erroneous and offensive insinuations about our President's legitimacy and beliefs demonstrate that as a nation we still have much work to do. Our treatment of Islam and our Muslim co-patriots is shameful and driven by our fear and anger. We must refocus our efforts on judging "people by the content of their character," and living "out the true meaning of [our nation's] creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"
We read in the book of Genesis, Chapter six, verse nine, "Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah b'dorotav." "Noah was righteous in his generation." The qualifier--"in his generation," has been a subject of significant discussion for many commentators in Judaism. Why does the text specify, "in his generation"? An eleventh century Jewish commentator explains that Noah was ONLY righteous by the standards of his generation, and that Noah would not have been considered righteous in the generation of Abraham. There are a number of places in Scripture where the actions of Abraham are affirmed over those of Noah. Where Abraham personally argued with God to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah only did what God commanded. Where Abraham leapt up and ran to greet the divine visitors to his tent, we read that Noah only "walked with God." In the Jewish tradition, Abraham is considered to be the epitome of righteousness, an ideal figure. The implicit message from this commentary is that Noah was inferior—he was righteous only in his own generation, while Abraham is to be considered righteous in all generations.
As we see how far we have come as a nation, it is tempting to measure our progress only in terms of past generations. Compared to the days of slavery or Jim Crow, we have come far. And yet the violence and inequality that persist in our nation suggest that we are only righteous in comparison to the past, and that we still have work to do. We must not merely be righteous in our own generation. We must not merely be satisfied by being better than those that came before us. We must not allow ourselves to say, "Look at how far we've come." Reverend King's Dream challenges us to see righteousness and to seek social justice in more absolute terms.
We must continue to beat back the "searing flames of withering injustice" that continue to burn in many avenues of our lives. Economic injustices continue to plague our nation's communities, as human rights are violated all too often in the profaned name of justice and safety. We may think that our awareness of racism and social consciousness is at an apogee, that we are enlightened people, that we are worlds away from the ignorance and hatred and bigotry of generations past, yet subtle acts of racism continue to persist in our world, in our country, in our towns and city, merely miles from our homes, barely blocks from this sanctuary. Surely we are righteous, surely we speak out against injustice and intolerance, but we still seek to reach that time which Reverend King foresaw, when freedom would "ring from the mighty mountains of New York," and justice flow down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.
The current mis-treatment of so many people in this country, and around the world based on the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation, [this mis-treatment] is a moral blemish for us today. People of color continue to be under represented in our colleges, businesses, and government. Poverty impacts people of all skin colors, but there are disproportionately more poor people of color. Injustice persists in our world on so many levels. Denying that presence or delaying our response is a violent act. There is a saying in the Jewish tradition: Violence enters the world with justice delayed and justice denied.
Anger threatens to tear our world asunder through violence and vicious words and actions. We must pledge, this day, to meet violence with non-violent resistance and love. Pacifism is not passivity; we must be active in our opposition to the violence that plagues our world and encourage the transformation of anger into creativity. As Reverend King taught,
"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."
For us to transcend or overcome merely being righteous in our own generation, we must continue to engage in meaningful dialogue about race in this country, free from violence and violent rhetoric. We must also explore together those key issues in our area that demand resolution. I am new to Geneva—I have only been here a few busy months, and I am still learning what matter most. Please! Educate me, educate your neighbors. Engage in discourse to determine the key issues impacting this community. We must hear each other and we must also listen to each other. As we progress in our discussions towards action, we must find ways to speak truth to power. Reverend King taught, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" By combining our resources and working together, we can ensure that our voices are heard on Election Day. As residents of this region we have a historical precedent to lead this nation in change—our forbearers led the nation towards the equal treatment of women in the world and workplace. So then it follows that we should also lead this nation towards the fulfillment of Reverend King's Dream.
In our day and age, we must affirm the stirring, prophetic calls for equality and social justice that are echoed throughout Scripture, even as we reject the prejudice and the fetters of racism that have lingered and festered from ancient times until now. We must embrace and work for the Dreams of George Washington and Martin Luther King, and recognize how their Dreams were founded upon prophetic visions of Biblical progenitors who professed a message relevant to all generations: do good, seek justice, and pursue peace.
How far we have come as a nation, but, oh, how much further we have to go. With God's help and the work of our hands and our hearts, we may reach such a time, when equality and justice will ring over all our nation's hills and valleys, cities and towns. "This is our hope." We will hear and heed the prophetic call from the heights of that ancient, arbor'd hill in Washington, where freedom's voices echo, to the shores of Seneca Lake, where women's voices and votes were first heard by our nation.
May the time not be distant when we are blessed with that understanding, appreciation, and experience of transcendent and transformative Love. May God bless us, our leaders, and our nation, that we "may be to the world an example of justice, righteousness, and compassion," and work for the Dream, in our time and in all times. Amen and Amen.