MLK Day 2016 - Speech for the Greater Rochester Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission

Post date: Jan 17, 2016 10:49:42 PM

Driving Out Darkness. Driving Out Hate

To all who are assembled here today, thank you. Thank you for the privilege to speak at this commemoration to honor the life, works, and dreams of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

And I am proud also to participate as a Jewish voice.

Jewish identity is infused with an imperative for Justice. The one thing Rev. King fought for, with all his heart, with all his soul, and finally, with his very life was Justice.

So I stand here, a small part of a long, deep, and proud history of African-American and Jewish-American relations: fighting for Just laws, the right for every human being to be treated with dignity. We are all children of the same God.

Today, I bring a simple message in three Hebrew words, “Lo bashamayim hi.”

It is not in the heavens. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy.

Picture Moses, at the edge of the Promised Land, talking to the Children of Israel. He knows they will cross without him. He needs to tell them something that will empower them to build a new country, and then run it, to keep it going and keep it growing. And like a parent who loves his children, Moses tells the people:

The things you must do to create a Godly society, a society ruled by justice and guided by compassion, those things are not in the heavens. They are, in fact, within your reach.”

And they are within our reach, too.

Lo bashamayim hi. Justice does not come when we get to heaven. Justice happens right here, on earth, with us, when we make it happen.

Reverend King wrote that he did not have a remarkable epiphany of belief.

He wrote in an essay: “Even though I have never had an abrupt conversion experience, religion has been real to me and closely knitted to life.”

Lo bashamayim hi. It is not in the heavens. It is here. The path to justice is not clothed in the mysteries of belief. There is no prerequisite conversion, or acceptance, or submission. It is the goal for all of us to pursue, people of religion and atheists and agnostics alike. Majority and minority. Old and young.

So what is required from us today, to reaffirm and maintain our path to justice?

I refer to the awakening of our teacher Moses in the Book of Exodus. He was 80 years old.

Long before he stood on the mountain and saw the Promised Land.

Before the plagues, and the wonders, and the Crossing of the Sea, and the wandering in the desert, Moses was 80 years old when he opened his eyes and saw the light of a burning bush.

There is an ancient Jewish teaching, which says that the bush had been burning right there since the dawn of creation. And lots of people, shepherds and merchants and travelers, had passed by that bush as it was burning.

And not a single one exclaimed, “Why is that?”

For 40 years that Moses lived with Jethro, that bush was burning. And it was the fire of God screaming out, “Your people are enslaved! Their blood cries out to you.”

And one day, Moses stopped and noticed, and he said, “Why is that?”

And so, together, let us ask, “Why is that?”

Why are there continued generations of our children, growing up uneducated, with all the social ills and none of the remedies for poverty. Why is that?

Why is it that, according to Tavis Smiley's latest book, African Americans have lost ground, in the last 10 years, on virtually every indicator of well being, including infant mortality, education, income, health outcomes, and life expectancy. Why is that?

What have we learned in the last 50 years of the War on Poverty? What works. What doesn’t work? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but these are big enough issues that we must ask hard and probing questions, and be prepared for uncomfortable change when things don’t work.

Why is it that 151 years after the end of slavery, and 7 years into the historic achievement of the first Black President of the United States, that African Americans are the victims of 60% of the hate crimes in America? Why is that?

When are we all going to be Americans?

So you don’t feel too badly about it, let me remind you that Moses himself walked by that burning bush 40 years. All those years he was comfortable, taking care of Jethro’s flock. Marrying Jethro's daughter. Watching his boys grow up.

And all that time, while the bush was shouting, “Your people are enslaved! Their blood cries out to you,” Moses was happy. He was watching Netflix on his 52”, 1080p, HDTV.

He didn't want to look at that bush! Except for one day, just one ordinary day, he stopped and looked closer, and saw what he had known all along.

And when he questioned, “Why is that?” ; when he took action and opened his eyes and saw the light, that's when God spoke to him. And God said, “Moses, take off your shoes. For….

The ground on which you stand is holy.”

And God said to Moses, I have heard the cries of my people. I have heard their suffering. And I remember my promise to them.

And so, we too must hear the suffering of our people, and we must remember our promise.

There blood is crying from the ground of Leighton Street. Let us hear and let us remember.

And from the Boys and Girls club on Genesee Street. Let us hear and let us remember.

Their pain is screaming from the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Let us hear and let us remember.

And from Sandra Bland’s grave, Let us hear and let us remember.

They are crying from Flint, Michigan. Let us hear and let us remember.

And they are calling from burgeoning prisons that harden criminals. Let us hear and let us remember.

Let us not be slaves to our iPhones and instagrams.

Let us not accept unequal pay, unequal policing, or unequal healthcare.

Let us not tolerate children who don’t go to school.

Let us not accept excuses for the violence that haunts our neighborhoods.

And my friends, I tell you now. with conviction and with as much certainty as I have that the sun will rise tomorrow, Lo Bashamayim hi, it is not in the heavens. For the ground on which we stand is holy.

Every one of us here today, is here because we love and admire and honor the legacy of Reverend King.

We are here because we believe that together we can make a better tomorrow.

We are here because we know there is still more work to do.

We are here because we hear the affliction of our sisters and brothers, and because of that, the ground on which we stand, here, today, this is holy ground.

Lo bashamayim hi. The problems we have today, and we have plenty, those are problems we can solve, and we will solve. There will be confusing and difficult choices and setbacks along the way. There will be victories. And there will be long days when we will be tempted to give up.

It was that way for Reverend King in 1956, during the height of the bus boycott in Montgomery, AL. He had received plausible death threats on himself and on his wife and children.

He wrote that while alone one night, trying to figure out how to give up, it was in the quiet of his kitchen, like the prophet Isaiah, that he heard a still small voice that said, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And God will be at your side forever.”

We don't have to scale the highest mountains.

The Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches us that creation was not additive. God did not create the earth and add it in. God is already EVERYTHING. How can you add more to everything? It’s already everything.

So we learn that God pulled back. God made room for the universe. God withdrew in order to make room for us to grow, and if God can make room for us, surely we can make room for each other!

Surely, we can make room for the elderly and the infirm.

We can make room for the homeless and the mentally ill.

We can make room for orphans, for people with disabilities, and for the victims of intolerance.

James Michener wrote: “An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine but because people refuse to see”

So let us learn from Moses, and mark this day to Awaken from complacency.

Let us remember King, who, in his deepest moment of doubt, found the resolve to stand for truth and righteousness.

Let us open our eyes to see clearly, our minds to think clearly, and let us shatter the patterns of intergenerational injustice and poverty.

Today, let us rededicate ourselves to justice and compassion, and we will make the ground on which we stand Holy.

-Samuel Asher, 18 January 2016