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Re'eh 2019

08/29/2019 01:34:31 PM


Rabbi Robinson

This week was one of anniversaries. It was the 64th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. Hurricane Katrina made it’s second and third landfall this week 14 years ago. And 56 years ago, as part of his participation in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what would become known as his ‘I have a Dream’ speech.

He had been scheduled to speak, of course, along with John Lewis, Rabbi Uri Miller, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, and Benjamin Mays, among many others. Perhaps ironically, the most famous part of the speech was not the one he planned to deliver. He had his written remarks calling for the end of racism in America, but as he concluded, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to him, “tell them about the dream, Martin!” Thus he began his real sermon, the one everyone needed to hear that day. The one we still need to listen and pay attention to. I won’t try to recite it, as I would simply fail, but his words have become such a part of the warp and woof of American society that I can take the risk and assume that we all know them, deep in our hearts. His call, a litany of blessings invoking a time when all shall live together in harmony, when equality is not questioned, and when we are all truly free—all of us—seems, I’m sure to many of us here tonight, like a messianic ideal, a dream that sometimes feels further and further away from reality. But it’s worth noting that he told the world what we NEEDED to hear, words that resonate with us even to this day. Sharing the dream wasn’t just a reminder of the task at hand, but meant to inspire as well, to paint a picture of what was possible. And despite the use of the word ‘dream’, I truly believe that King thought what he was describing was possible.

Which leads us to our Torah portion, Re’eh. Here Moses stands before Israel to lay out the blessings and curses that await the people as they cross into the land. The land promised them, the land flowing with milk and honey, was once an aspirational goal, an abstract idea, something that seemed beyond them, but now they were being rallied with the Land right in front of them. But that’s not the interesting thing. What’s interesting, at least to me, is that Moses does not speak to the people in the plural; he speaks to them in the singular. That word, re’eh –‘look’, is spoken as one speaks to a single individual. And the rabbis of old pick up on this right away. They reimagine the scene entirely to one that I’ve shared before is, I think, one of the most beautiful images. Gone is Charleton Heston in his fake beard standing on a mountain speaking to the assembled throng. Instead, we have the image of Moses going through the camp and speaking to each and every individual, telling them what they need to hear, what blessings—or curses—they need in order to enter the land in peace. While the scene was different, in so many ways, that’s what King’s words do for us.

And do we need words like that today.  It is hard to feel optimistic about where we are going as a nation in terms of recognizing the equality and humanity of all. That we commemorate this anniversary the same week as Emmett Till’s yahrzeit, knowing that no commemorative plaque or marker remains up for long in Mississippi before it is vandalized or stolen, much like  the marker at Price’s Corner that went up just this summer, commemorating one of the few recorded racial lynchings that took place in this state.

Yes, it can be disheartening, when we look at the landscape of our country and see all that is taking place, as the bigots among us seem to get louder, and we constantly seem to be moving away from Dr. King’s dream. It’s exhausting; think of the number of articles and opinion pieces this week talking about how much fatigue we all seem to be suffering these days. I know I’m weary. But as Psalm 27, which we recite the month we anticipate Rosh Hashanah, reminds us, we must be strong and of good courage. Yes, the day is short, the work is hard, and the taskmaster is demanding, but we are not given the freedom to desist from it. And I think King instinctively knew that. We need to look out for one another in this work, to support one another, to share, as Moses did, as King did, our dreams of hope with one another, so that we don’t become weary, so that we can be strong and of good courage. We need to be able to say to one another “Look”, look at what might be, what should be, and look at how we’re going to get there. Look at this teenager standing in front of Popeyes registering people to vote when all they wanted was a chicken sandwich. Look at this kid in Scotland who drowned out hate speech by a bigot with his bagpipes. Look at these two kids from Delaware who read bedtime stories on Facebook every night to kids who don’t have someone to read to them. Look at what we can do, how we’re going to get to that dream. We need that, to be lifted up and to lift one another up. So I ask: what do you need to hear, and what do you need to say to others? What dream do you need to talk about, so that we can cross into that land? Because here’s the thing: King wasn’t going to talk about it until Mahalia Jackson nudged him. Moses wasn’t going to go through the people to talk to them until he knew he had to. We have to be the ones to speak, to share, to lift up. We can’t wait for a prophet like Moses or King to do it. We need to do it for each other.

Sunday begins Elul. Next Friday we’ll recite Psalm 27, and we’ll hear the shofar. As we march toward a new year, may we think of our dreams, of King’s dream, of the blessings in our tradition, and commit ourselves to share them, so we don’t grow weary. So we may be free, at last.

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784