by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Programs, JCUA
In this week’s Torah portion (Niztavim-Vayelech), we meet Moses in his final days. He is giving last instructions to his people, as they proceed into the Promised Land without him.
But as I read this week’s parasha, it is a different speech of King that haunts me. It is the speech he gave at Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968 – the night before he was killed.
At the very conclusion of this later speech, King says –
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. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
In this week’s parasha, Moses stands by the Jordan River, and, like King, tells his people that they must continue into the promised land without him: “And Moses went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel. He said to them, ‘Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come, and the Lord said to me – You shall not cross this Jordan’ (Deuteronomy, 31: 1-2).”
Both leaders speak of standing at the cusp of achieving what they have worked so hard for, and empowering others to fulfill the dream. Perhaps this is where the road from the Jordan River to Memphis goes through the March on Washington. It is often mentioned that the March on Washington advocated for freedom. But it also advocated for jobs. It was a march for civil rights, but also for economic justice.
Not surprisingly, then, King took the fateful trip to Memphis in 1968 in order to support the city’s sanitation workers, mostly African American, who were fighting for their labor rights. He said to his Memphis audience:
The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. […] Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.
We know that the dream of racial and economic justice is still a promise yet to be fulfilled. Last year I also wrote about King, as we commemorated 49 years to the March. I wrote then:
The midrash says that a person may walk through 49 gates of impurity, but once one crosses the 50th, one cannot be redeemed. It is said that while in slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were in such dire straits, that they had crossed “49 gates of impurity.” Hence, the midrash teaches, we count 49 days from Passover to Shavuot, when the Torah was given. These 49 days redeem us back from slavery to liberation – passing through 49 gates of sanctification.
I expressed the hope that we would not reach a 50th year without redeeming the dream. But still, there is much work to be done. How do we move forward?
I find inspiration, again, in this week’s Torah portion. Before sending his people into the promised land, Moses tells them that fulfilling the promise of becoming a just and righteous community is in their hands:
It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. (Deuteronomy, 30: 12-14).
Moses and King both teach us, in their parting words, that in our collective action, we can lead ourselves to a just society.