Every year in mid-January, Americans and many other people around the world pause to think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on his birthday. I also think about him April 4th, the day of his assassination, which happens to be my late mother's birthday. (In an eerie twist of fate, the birthday of my mom's older sister, my aunt, was June 6th-- the day of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination.) Among the typical talking points on Dr. King are his messages of expanding equality and opportunity, of moving forward and not regressing, of brotherhood, of alleviating poverty.

All worthwhile message and themes. But another thing I think about when I ponder the life's work of Dr. King is his emphasis on speaking well, speaking with conviction, speaking to inspire. And good orators, if not excellent orators, are hard to find these days. 

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Perhaps Dr. King's most famous speech was his "I Have a Dream" talk of 1963. If you read the text, it is moving, involving, persuasive. But it does not have nearly the power, the emotion and impact of listening to the actual recording, or even better, watching a video of it. You can easily find it on YouTube and educational/cultural websites. https://youtu.be/smEqnnklfYs is one link, to the full speech, and not just the highlights. 

As he progresses through the speech his voice grows emotional, his tone more dramatic, but he does not rush through his words. His voice has a musical quality that catches one's attention. Certainly his speech and his vocal performance are rooted in his experience as a pastor, but there is more to it than that. He rises to the occasion of speaking on a hot summer day, at one of the most famous and revered places in the United States (the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC). He feeds off the energy of the members of the huge audience and speaks to them, not above them.

Listening to the speech, I am also struck by responses of some audience members: "Yes, yes" and "Amen" and "Right on" and other interjections. This also adds to the fascinating quality of this iconic speech. 

Does the United States have such speakers these days, speakers who can hold our attention and touch our emotions with such strength? Speakers who can weave various topics into their speeches with ease, topics such as history, current events, religious touchstones, and more? There are so few people who are skilled orators. It is a shame.People who can deliver a riveting speech that stays with us have a skill that is becoming rarer each year. But we need people like that. They show how the spoken word has so much importance and can have such deep dignity.

Jews can certainly appreciate this. Don't we want to hear sermons, at least occasionally, that hold immense power and which stay with us, so that we can hear in our memories the inflection, the unique qualities of the speaker (be it a rabbi, scholar or even a layperson)? Don't we want to witness speeches given by politicians or activists or others, that will stand the test of time? Think of some other world-renowned speeches: off the top of my head, I can think of a few given by political leaders such as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and a retiring baseball player Lou Gehrig, and most recently Oprah Winfrey on the Golden Globe Awards show. These are speeches that stay with us. But we need more speakers to rise to this challenge. We need to teach this in schools, and encourage our children to speak well and with weight, at least on special occasions. 

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