On April 4, 1968, the U.S. and world lost an incredible man: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Since learning about him in elementary school, I’ve always been enthralled by Dr. King – his dedication to justice, yes; but also his commitment to faith and religion as a cornerstone of his work.
And, from my understanding of Judaism as inherently tied to social justice, I’ve always created a connection between Dr. King and the biblical figure Moses. The comparisons are simply undeniable:
- They rose from humble positions in their communities to immense leadership roles.
- Both were flawed leaders that needed a strong network of people working around them to succeed.
- Their most important work was during times of great oppression of their people.
- Both spoke their truths to power – whether it was the Pharaoh of Egypt of the Pharaoh of Alabama.
- And famously, both never fully reached that Promised Land.
As we mark 50 years since Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, TN, and in thinking about his connection with Moses, I’m particularly drawn to Dr. King’s last speech, “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop.”
Addressing striking sanitation workers in Memphis just one day before he would be killed, Dr. King gives a powerful speech that explains the history of the Civil Rights Movement, gives specific actions for the people to take to fight racism and poverty, and calls upon everyone in the audience to resist no matter the circumstances. And, in what would make people think that Dr. King knew that he would be killed soon, shares thoughts on his own mortality – he’s “just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding”.
Although Dr. King explores pieces of the Bible throughout this speech (as in most of his rhetoric), it’s his final section of this speech that is so prophetic and brings him into the shadow of the great Moses:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] 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. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) 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. [Applause]”
Moses, too, had the opportunity to go up to the mountain and look over, and see the Promised Land. But the Israelites would have much more marching to do to finally get to that land overflowing with milk and honey. And the same is for Dr. King. He may have seen the Promised Land, but fifty years later we’re still marching and toiling and struggling to get to that land. That land overflowing with love and dignity and justice for all people.
Zichrono l’vrachah, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: May your memory be a blessing - and an inspiration - to us all.