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A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f 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?”… “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 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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