Thursday, 22 Jul 2010

Written by Rabby Danny Burkeman

I’ve been to the mountaintop
(Deuteronomy 3:23-4:14)

Last summer, while Micol, my wife, and I were driving across America we stopped for a few hours in the city of Memphis. We knew that we did not have time to spend the night there, but we wanted to see the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and we felt a responsibility to visit and learn more about the American civil rights movement. It was a tremendously powerful experience, and the story of Dr. King was especially moving. He led the civil rights movement, but he never saw the final fruits of his labour.

On the 3rd April 1968, the evening before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech where he said: ‘We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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.’

He was prophetic about the people reaching the promised land, but he was also prophetic about his own fate, as he did not live to realise the dream.

The mountaintop which Dr. King was referring to could have been Pisgah, the mountain which Moses is instructed to ascend in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 3:27). Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom, out of the land of Egypt and towards the Promised Land. But Moses never got to enter.

Our Torah portion begins with Moses telling the people: ‘I pleaded with the Eternal at that time . . .  Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan’ (Deut. 3:23, 25). The text makes it clear that Moses remained unhappy with God’s decree that he would not enter into the Promised Land. The one consolation which Moses is offered is to climb up Mount Pisgah and ‘gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan’ (Deut. 3:27).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Moses both led their people to freedom, both climbed the mountaintop, and both were prevented from reaching the promised land/Promised Land.

The difference is the way in which they approached their destiny. Moses appeared unable to accept his fate, he was angry with God, with the people and most of all with his situation. Dr. King accepted his fate with grace and dignity; he accepted that the journey to the promised land was about more than any one individual. He did not get there, but through his work and his legacy the people reached the promised land.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the benefit of learning from Moses’ example. He could read the Bible and read about the Israelite successes both under Moses’ leadership and after his death. He could read about the way in which Joshua continued Moses’ legacy; leading the people into the Promised Land. With the example of the Bible, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gained an insight into the future, and the fact that the journey could and would continue without him. And with that awareness he was able to accept his destiny.

Both Moses and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made the world a far better place for future generations. They did not see the full fruits of their labour, but we experience the richness of their legacy on a daily basis.  

Rabbi Danny Burkeman MA, Associate Rabbi
West London Synagogue

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.