The following are remarks by JFS CEO Rabbi Will Berkovitz given at Temple Beth Am’s Freedom Shabbat on January 10, 2020.
While living in Israel, I had a scribe write for me on a piece of parchment my favorite verse in the Torah, “behold this dreamer cometh.” This is the verse I turn to when I am feeling optimistic. On another piece of parchment, I had the scribe write the rest of the verse, “and now let us throw him into a pit and we will say wild animals ate him and we will see what has become of his dreams.” On days when I am feeling less optimistic, the second parchment is the one I look at. Call it cynical rabbinic humor.
These verses are the inflection point in the life of Joseph and the Israelites. These chapters tell how his brothers threw him into a pit and left him for dead. Joseph literally goes from the bottom of an empty hole to the height of power in Egypt.
While thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King for this evening, I discovered the words written on a plaque outside room 306 at the Loraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. Inscribed there it says, “Behold hear cometh the dreamer…. let us slay him and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.”
But Martin Luther King’s dream lives on. According to our tradition, dreams are 1/16th prophecy. The rest is just hard work. A vision without a plan will always stay just a dream. Martin Luther King understood this as do all those who are working on that long arc bending toward justice.
There are times when I feel like we have been slumbering in all the intervening years – become complacent and forgotten the dream. There is still so much work ahead. Racism is still the lived nightmare of many in our society, as are so many of the injustices Martin Luther King fought against.
At times I hear folks say, “all this is just too overwhelming.” But we can’t respond this way. We don’t have the luxury to be overwhelmed. The stakes are too high and, it seems, get higher every day.
It is true the world has become far more complicated. Everyone appears aggrieved and we seem always at risk of offending someone. But that fear too must be seen for the illusion it is. We need to move beyond self-righteousness and rise above the call-out culture, the trolls and the cynics until we can see that great arc of justice bending like the curvature of the Earth before us. If there was ever a time to remember the power of dreams, this is surely it.
We’re here tonight to recognize the great work of Temple Beth Am and the partnership with JFS on the Homeless to Renter Initiative (H2R). This work is an example of the power of dreams.
Since its inception, H2R has moved 378 families out of homelessness, including families who have been involved in the child welfare system. Today, because of your vision, those families are living in safe, stable and affordable housing, some of those with subsidized, Section 8 vouchers. As you know, these families are disproportionately people of color and marginalized populations. The tradition says that one who saves a life saves an entire world in time. And that is what you have done. In that way, you are actively making sure that King’s dream still lives.
Thank you for not sitting on the sidelines and waiting for others to do the work. You didn’t say, “It can’t be done,” or “It can only be done one way.” You showed that it can and must be done. You do the work, the heavy lifting. You recognize the day is short and the task is great. So, you rolled up your sleeves. You light the path for others and you never forget that we were strangers in a strange land.
The first time I met with the H2R committee was in the library here at Beth Am. I noticed a placard mounted high on the wall. It reads, “One God, One Mankind, One justice.” Many of you know that it was carried in the original Black Lives Matter marches in another time. Before the Loraine Motel. Before the dreamer of dreams was murdered. It was carried by Rabbi Norman Hirsh and other members of this congregation during the civil rights marches in the 60s with Martin Luther King.
This week’s parsha ends with the death of the dreamer – Joseph. It ends the book of Bereisht, Genesis – the end of the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The next book is Shemot, the book of Exodus, where our ancestors the Hebrews are transformed into the Israelites – a nation of dreamers. It is the story Martin Luther King returned to again and again. He chose texts that were inclusive and not exclusive. He chose to invite and not alienate. What he understood is that when we expand the circle, we are stronger.
It is what made it possible for the Beth Am community in Seattle to join the march on that long arc toward justice. It is that dream, which has never died and never will die as long as we carry it forward on our journeys and ensure our children do as well.