During his recovery, King received a letter from a ninth-grade student at White Plains High School. She wrote:
While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.
Ever the dynamic orator and preacher, King expresses that he too was happy that he "...didn't sneeze." Because if he had sneezed, he would never have seen students through the South sitting-in at lunch counters, he would never have participated in riding for freedom and ending segregation in interstate travel, he would never have witnessed the enactment of the Civil Rights Bill, he would never have marched from Selma to Montgomery, and he would never have found himself in Memphis, rallying around his suffering brothers and sisters.
But a day later, emerging from his motel room, on his way to dinner, King was shot and killed, his dreams unfulfilled and his life work incomplete. This Shabbat, in advance of our nation's annual commemoration of the life and the work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., this coming Monday, Reform Jewish congregations across North America are joining together for Shabbat Tzedek, a Shabbat to rededicate our selves to engaging in acts of justice in our communities. Even with the passing of legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, we find a country and world, that at times seems hopeless and irreparable, broken by discord, a world torn by racial injustice, violence, drug epidemics, poverty, hunger, and homelessness, where fear toward immigrants is commonplace, and where our government is looking to suspend access to health care for countless individuals, without any viable alternatives. Separate to this, we as Jews know full well the harrowing specter of anti-Semitism that our people continues to face. Nearly fifty years after his assassination, are King's dreams, promoting a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" still alive and still relevant?
Perhaps a passage from the Torah can help us to answer this question. Parashat Vayechi, the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis, is a fitting text for this Shabbat because it focuses predominantly on the death of Jacob. After a long life, Jacob finds himself dying in Egypt. But he doesn't wish to be buried in Egypt, so he requests a favor from his son Joseph. After Jacob's death, Jacob instructs Joseph to take his remains from Egypt and bury them in the burial place of Jacob's ancestors.
But Jacob's request, unfulfilled in his lifetime, is characteristic of his seemingly incomplete personal journey. The Etz Hayim Torah Commentary explains:
[Jacob's] journey will have taken him to three countries. He has loved, he has fought, and he has known bereavement...We may see Jacob as perhaps the most fascinating of the patriarchs...He seeks contentment, and never succeeds in finding it, because there is always one more challenge to be overcome. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Jacob/Israel.
If there is always one more challenge to overcome, then the message for Jacob's life, and for ours, as descendants of Jacob, is that every journey, every life, will remain in some way, incomplete and unfulfilled. It is Joseph who must provide for Jacob's final wish, the fulfillment of Jacob's dream, by carrying Jacob's bones out of Egypt. After Jacob dies, Joseph must carry his bones, bear the burden, accept the responsibility, follow through, complete the task, and witness the fulfillment of his father's dream.
Nearly fifty years after his assassination, are King's dreams, promoting a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" still alive and still relevant? If we accept Dr. King's teachings for liberty and justice as our own, using the metaphor, as the very bones that we must carry out of Egypt, then Dr. King's legacy continues to survive. It is so easy to lose faith with what we are encountering in our world. News reports, Facebook feeds, fractured conversations with family members and colleagues can sometimes leave us feeling frustrated, unsure of who to trust, unclear about purpose, uncertain about which problem we should try and solve next.
But are we at least willing to carry Jacob's bones out of Egypt? Are we willing, like Joseph, to take just one task upon our shoulders? There is a quote in the 16th century Shulkhan Arukh that reads, "Better a few prayers spoken with intention than many words prayed without intention." Applying the concept, it is far more useful to organize our efforts, to make a lasting difference in one or a few areas, rather than to allow ourselves to fall prey to the tremendous overwhelm that comes with seeing just how broken our world truly is.
We cannot expect that every dream we have for our world will ever be fulfilled. But in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, "neither are we free to desist from the task" before us. On this Shabbat Tzedek, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is asking communities to "reflect on both the legacy of structural racism in all aspects of our society and on the racial diversity of our own Jewish community...to build deep, transformative relationships across lines of race, faith, and class that are about shared values and the pursuit of a shared future and to reform the broken policies and practices that drive racial inequity in our society – from mass incarceration, which strains the bonds of family and diminishes opportunity, to the constant attacks on the right to vote, the ultimate guarantor that everyone in a democracy has a voice."
But even these efforts come with limits and moral boundaries. When a group of black men, recently attacked a disabled white man in Chicago, we don't defend this assault, we cry out against it because it is wrong. We cannot support one part of our world while turning a blind eye to another. If what we want and truly desire is a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" then our efforts can't ever be about using the messages of Jewish tradition to promote only what appear superficially to be liberal values and causes. Our goal is to use the messages of Jewish tradition to promote a better reality for all human beings. In our present light, and the present tenor of our country, too often we speak about politics, when truly, the metaphor of carrying Jacob's bones, bearing the burden of responsibility in future generations, has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with making our world a better place for all people.
King once said, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent." Dreamers come and go, they live and die. Such is the way of the world for all of us. None of us get out of this journey alive. But good dreams, beautiful dreams, shouldn't be allowed to die. Good dreams, beautiful dreams, of "liberty and justice for all" need to be just that, and they need to be carried forward and realized.
Life can chew us up and spit us out, and still, the task remains the same, to pick ourselves and pick others up off the floor, to see and recognize and appreciate and sanctify the very God-given humanity that is deeply present in each and every one of us, so that when we look back at this pained, tormented, and broken world, we see that our greatest strength comes from responding together, collectively, with united vision. We will never let the status quo get us down. We will never lose hope, and we must always hold onto our dreams, sharing and entrusting them to the next generation. Nearly fifty years after his assassination, are King's dreams, promoting a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" still alive and still relevant? Only if we allow them to be. Only if we continue to carry Jacob's bones out of Egypt.
 Genesis 47:29-30, 50:5-14.
 Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, pp. 306-7.
 Shulkhan Arukh Orach Chayyim 1:4, quoted in Mishkan T'filah, p. 57.
 Mishnah Avot 2:21.