Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

“I Have a Dream…”

January 2017

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 which means, had he been blessed with a longer life, he would have celebrated his 88th birthday this month. However, on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, TN, his life, tragically, was cut short be an assassin’s bullet. Five years before his untimely death, on the 28th of August in 1963, Dr. King delivered a speech that was destined to become one of the great oratory achievements of American statesmanship. This speech, with its now famous phrases, “I have a dream” & “free at last,” was heard in Washington DC as part of a march on the Capitol for jobs & freedom. If Dr. King’s speeches remind us of the powerful words of our prophets Isaiah & Jeremiah, we should not be surprised. Dr. King was an ordained minister & knew the words & the theology as well, or better than most. Moreover, like these ancient spokesmen of God, Martin Luther King Jr. was an iconoclast; a human being with a vision of a better world & a real road-map to peace. Perhaps, one might even argue that he, like Amos & Hosea, spoke words put into his mouth by the will of God.

Whether or not he was indeed a prophet, it is clear that the Biblical prophets & stories of the ancient Israelites, with which Dr. King was familiar at the earliest age, formed the basis of his visions & his speeches. For example, his sermon, “The Birth of a New Nation,” delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on April 7, 1957 illustrates the point. In this sermon, Dr. King speaks about the colonial subjugation of the Gold Coast in Africa. Dr. King makes it very clear that his model for freedom's struggle is Biblical, as he states at the outset:

I want to preach this morning from the subject: “The Birth of a New Nation.” And I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together a story that has long since been stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness, & finally to the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful story. I had the privilege the other night of seeing the story in movie terms in New York City, entitled “The Ten Commandments,” & I came to see it in all of its beauty—the struggle of Moses, the struggle of his devoted followers as they sought to get out of Egypt. And they finally moved on to the wilderness & toward the Promised Land. This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom. It is the 1st story of man’s explicit quest for freedom. And it demonstrates the stages that seem to inevitably follow the quest for freedom.

In this sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. covers the history of colonial Africa & that continent’s subsequent march towards freedom. He talks about:

little children six years old & old people eighty & ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” … They were experiencing that in their very souls. And everywhere we turned, we could hear it ringing out from the housetops. We could hear it from every corner, every nook & crook of the community: "Freedom! Freedom!" This was the birth of a new nation. This was the breaking aloose from Egypt.

Freedom, to Dr. King, was not a condition, but rather an inborn yearning of the human soul. He states: “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for awhile. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, & they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them; some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, & they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up & begin to cry out for Canaan’s land.” So powerful a metaphor has Israel in Egypt become, that some 3300 years later, it expresses the yearning of Black America for dignity & freedom.

Dr. King is keenly aware of the potential to transform humanity that love & dignity offers. He saw that potential in the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, the same words that comforted George Frederic Handel 2 centuries before Dr. King delivered these words. As Dr. King spoke eloquently that day: “…I can hear Isaiah again, because it has profound meaning to me, that somehow, ‘Every valley shall be exalted, & every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, & the rough places plain; & the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, & all flesh shall see it together.’ That’s the beauty of this thing: all flesh shall see it together. Not some from the heights of Park Street & others from the dungeons of slum areas. Not some from the pinnacles of the British Empire & some from the dark deserts of Africa. Not some from inordinate, superfluous wealth & others from abject, deadening poverty. Not some white & not some black, not some yellow & not some brown, but all flesh shall see it together. They shall see it from Montgomery. They shall see it from New York. They shall see it from Ghana. They shall see it from China.”

As heirs of those Biblical prophets, we modern Jews may be justifiably proud of our traditions & what we have taught the world. But we cannot become too smug nor too complacent. We must never forget that beyond the freedom from Egypt’s tyranny lies a wilderness to be embraced & a Torah to be received. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “…my friends, rise up & know that, as you struggle for justice, you do not struggle alone, but God struggles with you. And He is working every day.”

Today, there are those Jews who come to their temples yearning to hear sermons about modern, vibrant Judaism. The Bible & the traditions are ancient moldy superstitions. Stories of Moses in the wilderness are not relevant to their lives. I think Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would take exception to that. As he once stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” May we, the 1st of God’s people to taste the bitter pill of slavery & the soothing balm of God’s deliverance remember daily that only by God’s grace are we privileged to say: “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, I’m free at last!”

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman