MLK’s Dayenu Moment

This past weekend, as I gathered for Passover seders, first with my family and friends, and then with my congregation, I could not help but notice that these sacred occasions coincided with the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, having traveled to Memphis to support striking African American city sanitation workers.

It is hard not to think of King’s killing without thinking of his final speech, delivered the night before at348px-Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lectern the Mason Temple. For King, the story of the Exodus which we tell at Passover had tremendous power; the ancient story of the liberation of Israelite slaves was an important narrative informing the civil rights movement he led.

In this sadly prescient speech, King evokes the image of Moses viewing the Promised Land after having led the Israelites for so many years. In the Torah, we learn that Moses will not make it into the Land, he is destined to die on the eastern side of the Jordan River. King in his speech says, “And [God’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!”

While we tend to remember that last part of the speech, the earlier part of his words are quite important as well. Towards the beginning of his remarks, King give a brief overview of history:

And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt, and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon, and I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would go on even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire, and I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I’m named had his habitat, and I would watch Martin Luther as he tacks his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863 and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation, and come with an eloquent cry that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But I wouldn’t stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.”

In reading this speech this past weekend, I could not help but think about how much this sounded like
, the liturgical poem sung during the
(“Telling”) section of the seder. In his speech, King is reciting a litany of important moments in the scope of human history. And while each has its moments of import, and King acknowledges the significance of each one, he ultimately rejects each one as the time in which he would like to live, settling on the time he is living, the second half of the twentieth century.

In Dayenu, we recite a litany of important moments in the scope of Israelite history: leaving Egypt, splitting the sea, being provided for in the desert, arriving at Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah, entering the Promised Land. In the song, after each verse we say “dayenu”—“it would have been enough for us.” But the refrain is a paradox: while on the one hand it would have been enough, at the same time it would not have been enough. The song comes to teach that we need to have gratitude for each step of our journey, that we need to be mindful of the blessings we have received. Yet we also need to be unsatisfied, and remember that while we may be grateful for how far we have come, we can not lose sight of where we still need to go.

So too with King’s litany. He acknowledges the achievement of past historical moments: The Exodus (!), ancient Greece, the Renaissance and so on. In extolling their virtues, one can almost hear him say “dayenu.” But immediately after acknowledging their strengths, he claims it would not have been enough. He prefers his time because he is seeing the real possibility for transformation in society, especially as it relates to racial equality. He prefers his time because he can make a real difference. So while he acknowledges the past, he ultimately looks to the future.

As we celebrate Passover this week, we relive and retell the story of transformation that was the Exodus. But we are not merely recounting “history.” We are telling a story of transformation of the present and the future. King’s words reinforce the message of the Haggadah: we recognize how far we have come and we say “dayenu.” But we also say “I wouldn’t stop there.”

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