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Martin Luther King and Dreaming Big

What follows is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat.

This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. On this day we reflect on his achievements. We also ponder what remains to be realized in the civil rights struggle.

As you know Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech in August of 1963 standing before Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial and in front of the thousands who marched there to further civil rights.

In that “I Have a Dream” speech, he said:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
After a particularly dark week, when despair grips us, when we see clear evidence of what happens when antisemitism goes unchecked, when terrorism again frightens us, I want to reflect not on these evils, but instead on the importance of dreams. Faith in general and Judaism in particular is built on the dream that tomorrow can be better than today. For the religious person dreams are not fantasies. They can be felt. They can be touched. Dreams are as real as the earth and sky. We tenaciously hold on to dreams despite what happens around us. We remain undeterred by tragedy. We do not veer because of evil.

Let us take but one example from history. For nearly 2,000 years we prayed, “Next year in Jerusalem!” I am certain there were times when some laughed at such statements, when there were even Jews who lost hope, who despaired and scoffed at such dreams, calling them perhaps fantasies. We have lived through unimaginably dark days and yet we continued to sing, we continued to shout, “We will return!” And now we have returned. Jerusalem is rebuilt; it is a teeming, thriving, modern city. Israel certainly faces its challenges—and that is perhaps an understatement—but let us take heart in the realization of our dream.

Do you think that Zionism could have been successful if not for that ancient hope, that Jewish dream that every child heard at their Seder tables? I don’t think so. Better realities are built on ancient dreams. That is what today’s Jerusalem should loudly proclaim to every Jewish child.

The person of faith does not dismiss dreams. The religious personality does not scoff at visions. They instead embrace them and take them into their hearts. At the darkest times, they don’t resort to cynicism. Instead they sing louder.

Sure there is a lot of work still to be done to realize Martin Luther King’s dream; we always fall short of dreams. Far too many African Americans do not share the opportunities my children take for granted. We can argue about the whys, but that fact remains unaltered. And yet my children really don’t judge others by the color of their skin or by their religion or by their sexual orientation. They look instead to the content of their character. In 1963 few could have imagined such a different reality could be realized within a lifetime.

Hatred, racism, antisemitism still exist; in some corners they even thrive, but we have traveled far. The civil rights dream is not yet fully real but we are so much better because we dreamed. During some days even dreaming is an act of courage! Sure we have to keep working harder to repair a great many things. But we traveled this far because of a dream. That is what must always be held before our eyes. We must keep dreaming. That is the answer.

And finally there is the dream of peace that we must continue to speak of. We don’t dismiss it because of a week marred by unspeakable evils. I admit, on this day this dream could not seem more distant. After this week the dream of peace cannot seem more elusive. What is the person of faith to do? Abandon dreaming? Abandon speaking of visions of a better tomorrow? Never! We continue to sing for peace.

Faith is the stubborn response to human frailty, to human flaws, and to the world’s imperfections. We do not ignore reality. Instead we refuse to be defeated by it. We continue to sing; we continue to dream.

The prophet Isaiah declared:
Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For instruction shall come forth from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus God will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2)
Part of the answer to our times, the response of faith is to dream. We restore hope by dreaming. We continue to sing: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war!”