When I read King’s words, two images from two different cultures, two different historical experiences pop into my mind. The first is taken from my own heritage and relates to one of our forefathers Jacob. I am referring to his dream in which “he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (Bresheet, 28:10-22)
The second image comes from the African American experience. It is expressed in the words of one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes. In his poem Mother and Son, he writes, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair….. And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light.”The thread that connects the two and which they both share is the message of faith. Both stem from a dreary present. The Biblical Jacob is on the run for fear of his life. Hugh’s plight is the result the racial policy that plagued his reality and the reality of his ancestors. Both the ladder in the dream and the staircase in the poem lead to unknown realms. Most importantly, they both offer hope.
Unlike the stairs in the poem, however, Jacob’s ladder, his stairway to heaven, seems more sturdy, more reassuring and has the reaffirmation of G-d’s promise to Am Yisrael: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you”
This promise is reiterated later in Yirmiyahu (AKA Jeremiah) 46:27:"Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, Yisrael. I will surely save you out of a distant place, your descendants from the land of their exile. Jacob will again have peace and security, and no one will make him afraid.” It is faith in the promise for a better future that kept us, Am Yisrael, going.
It is also faith in a better future that the words of the mother in the poem are so drenched with:
“ So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now— For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’,”
The message of both experiences is loud and clear. We must continue to climb and never give up, no matter how hard, rocky and sometimes dark the journey towards our goal is.
I will end with another quote by another favorite poet, Rabindranath Tagore, “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.”
These are hard times for us, Am Yisrael, in particular, and for the whole world, in general, but we must not despair. There is the light at the top of the staircase and beyond the edge of dawn even though we may not see it. All we need is, like the bird, to spread our wings and soar beyond and above the dismal present towards the light that is there and into the bright and glorious future that awaits us!