Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On the Mountaintop

April 3, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, Tennessee supporting the Memphis Sanitation Workers. This group of local garbage collectors and waste managers had been on strike for two months following the deaths of two of their co-workers due to poor working environments. While the work environment was the catalyst, their treatment reeked of racism and economic injustice. They were the most vulnerable, most abused, most neglected but essential workers in society.

So Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis.

April 3, 1968, King wasn’t planning on speaking at the Mason Temple in Memphis. A thunderstorm was gathering over the city and King was feeling ill. Eager to rest, he remained at the Lorraine Motel while he sent his friend Ralph Abernathy to speak. Given the weather, they anticipated a meager crowd anyway.

When Abernathy discovered a standing room crowd of bright eyed, impassioned, impoverished citizens, a message was sent to King – and despite his health and despite the weather – King showed up. King adlibbed his entire speech, now known as the Mountaintop Speech.

Less than 24 hours later, Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

It was a prophetic speech, a prophetic evening where King muses on the meaning of an untimely death, how fear of retaliation should not prevent one from doing the work of God. How despite the unpopularity of the message, the messenger must deliver it.

Watching the speech (which we will do in a minute), knowing now what will happen the next day, we can’t help but get the chills and know that this man was made of something holy.

And it is a divine coincidence that this year Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend coincides with the beginning of the book of Exodus. In his speech on April 3, King began with these words:

“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.”

He’s speaking of the chronicles of Exodus. A book about an enslaved people. A forgotten, abused people who will suffer for 400 years until a leader rises up and leads the people to redemption. A leader who will not make it to the Promised Land with them but will entrust them to God, to morality, to knowing that if you empower them, they can lead themselves to promise.

At the beginning of Exodus we witness the birth of a prophet. Moses enters the world and brings with him the people’s a dream of redemption. But Moses’ birth is not the birth of a messiah. Moses was an essential, charismatic leader, but only one in a chain. Destined to live brightly then die abruptly. So it was with King as well.

That night in the Mason Temple King not only linked up with Moses at his birth, but also Moses’ death on Mount Nebo at the very end of Deuteronomy. God takes Moses up on Mount Nebo and shows him the land of Israel. The land he won’t enter.

To this King spoke:

In the video you’ll notice that King couldn’t even finish his sentence. Overwhelmed, almost paralyzed he is received lovingly by the arms of his friends and helped to his seat.

In addition to his words, there is no greater image for us to witness. In what would be the twilight of his life, King was received gently by his friends – as if to say: “when you are no longer able, our precious leader, we will take up your cause.”

From the heights of prophetic vision to the cushion of a human embrace.

Moses too. The midrash teaches that the angels prepared a bed for Moses. He dies on the peak of Mount Nebo and was buried in the valley, cradled and mourned by his people.

His people. It is those people from whom we also learn. King did not imagine himself walking with Moses out of Egypt, he saw himself walking with God’s children.

The unfinished task as been left to us, the Israelites who now inhabit the Promised Land, the Americans who thrive in a more equal America.


The book of Exodus begins with a death: “Joseph died and all his brothers and all that generation.” Immediately following this death, the Israelites grow and thrive, but a new Pharaoh arises over Egypt that did not Joseph.

Our society has grown and thrived. Our challenges are not dogs or water canons or government blindness; our challenge is forgetting. Our challenge is hardening our hearts to further progress; to claiming the work has been done by others. Our challenge is thinking that the Civil Rights Movement is resigned to the past and that the video we just watched is a relic of history.

For while Deuteronomy says there never was a prophet like Moses that arose over the people of Israel, the Torah ends by stressing that Moses was just the messenger. The last word of the Torah is Yisrael, leaving the message in your mouths and in your hearts so that you may do it.

King took up this challenge and he has left the message to us. May we carry the torch, the dream.

When we are feeling unwell, lethargic, when the weather outside is stormy, let us respond to the call and hurry to do the mitzvah of speaking truth to the people.

We may adlib our way through this work, but perhaps it will be the greatest work of our life.

Kein yhi ratzon – may these words be worthy of coming true.

You can read the entire transcript of King's Mountaintop Speech here.

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