Going Beyond the Mountaintop

I love Martin Luther King Day, and I hate Martin Luther King Day. I love honoring what Dr. King stood for, and at the same time, I wish we didn’t try to cram it all onto one day. The day becomes too much a metaphor and not enough a check-in. There is so much work to do before it is a check-in. We need Martin Luther King Day every day.

In an all-too-prophetic speech he gave the night before he was killed, Dr. King spoke of going to the mountaintop, evoking the memory of Moses, another great leader and visionary who did not see his vision fulfilled. As we read at the very end of the Torah, G-d allows Moses to ascend the mountain at Pisgah, from whose summit he can see the Promised Land. Like a child in a museum, Moses is permitted to look but not touch. G-d tells Moses, “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross there.” Similarly, Dr. King perhaps got glimmers of the progress of his own cause and passion but was not ultimately able to see it come to fruition. Indeed, in many ways, its fruition is still incomplete, fifty years on.

It is a terrible sadness, a national tragedy, that Dr. King was murdered and never got to see where his work led. While much dreaming still remains ahead of us, there has been some progress that I think would please him. Here the parallel with Moses breaks down. Although it must have frustrated Moses no end to be pressing his nose against the glass, he lived a long and eventful life, dying at age 120. He had his chance, and many of his dreams were fulfilled.

My friend Anita Winer (z’l) gave a beautiful drash on G-d’s decision to let Moses go only so far and no further: it is, Anita said, the natural order of things. Each generation must move its cause along a little further, but no generation gets to see the finish line, for there is no finish line. Anita was one of the founders of Temple Shalom, and her hard work and vision established a warm, learned community grounded in Reform Judaism. She got to see many aspects of the congregation flourish, but she knew that she wouldn’t live forever (much as we all wanted her to) and that others would take over and carry the community forward in new directions. She greeted this fact with optimism and curiosity, satisfied she had played her role and was ready to allow whatever was next to unfold in its own way.

I was at Temple Shalom this past Shabbat after a long time away and, while the community continues to blossom in new and exciting ways, someone else sat in Anita’s customary seat at the Minyan. Although it gave my heart a pang, I know Anita would be glad even of that. She never wanted to be enshrined, only to be of service.

Anita knew — and Dr. King knew — that the work must continue. The mountaintop is useful for providing us with a vision of where to go next, but it does not take the place of earning the Promised Land. This day, Martin Luther King Day, is the mountaintop, but on the other 364 days of the year (365 this year!) we must keep climbing, keep searching, keep working. As I wrote on Tisha B’Av, every day affords us an opportunity to connect with others across what could be uncomfortable divides, and to see each other as b’tzelem elohim, created in G-d’s image.

I’ve always loved this poem by Michael Walzer, which I first encountered in Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform prayer book:

Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

We’ve got a long way to go.

Let’s start today.

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