Praying with My Feet Because #BlackLivesMatter
What was it like to walk in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land?
In my own life and in my rabbinate, I often draw on the story of journey from Egypt to the land of Israel. But usually it is a metaphor. This past week, it became much more tangible, literally embodied.
Together with a group of other Jews, including four other rabbis, and a Torah, I participated in the NAACP #JusticeSummer a march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. The march is raising awareness and highlighting the issues that are still barriers to civil rights: economic inequality, education reform, criminal justice reform and voting rights. The march is being done in 20-mile increments with marchers joining in for as much as they can. There are teach-ins in the evenings and rallies for different causes at each state capital.
When the people of Israel heeded the call to follow Moses out to the wilderness they did not know what they were getting into. Similarly, I did not think much about what marching would entail. I simply headed a call because even without knowing the details, I knew it was the right thing to do.
The vision of praying with our feet comes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. His story is well know in the Jewish community and often stands as a symbol of the overall Jewish commitment to civil rights throughout time.
But as important as Rabbi Heschel was, his actions were only those of one man. There were many other Jews – white and Black – who were involved in the civil rights movement. However, there were more Jews who were not involved, silent or even against the movement. Moreover, the involvement of white Jews – yes, often in disproportionate numbers as compared to Jews as a portion of the general American white population — in the civil rights struggles of earlier times does not provide us with a pass to avoid involvement today. The fight for civil rights is ongoing, and as Jews we have an ongoing obligation to be involved.
Walking near the front of the line of the march was a Torah scroll, provided by the Religious Action Center. Each day of the march the Torah is passed from rabbi to rabbi, with marchers of all faiths helping carry it the 20 miles. For Jews the call to march, to continue to move the conversation around race and diversity forward originates from the Torah. Not only is it our moral code that teaches us to strive to make the world a better place but it is also the story of our people, who from our ancient origins were a people of many tribes each contributing to the whole.
On the day I joined the march, we walked along a two-lane highway through rural Georgia, passing small towns, ponds, many cheers and some jeers. Like the ancient people of Israel, I had no idea where I was heading. I put my trust in the leaders who were guiding us on our way. At the beginning I was filled with enthusiasm, excited to be on our way. But as the day wore on, the heat and physical challenge could not be ignored. This, I imagine, is what our ancestors must have felt daily as they trudged through the Sinai desert. They complained but they continued, I wonder now what sustained them. For me, the stories I heard kept me moving. Tales of perseverance, capacity to imagine new narratives, respect for the United States as an ideal. This was positive group, hopeful that decades of wondering will move us forward. They were frank and realistic in assessing the challenges and the work that needs to be done, but they were also pragmatic and hopeful.
When the people of Israel traveled through the desert they were not alone. With them came the erev rav the mixed multitudes who were not Israelite but were down for the cause, they wandered alongside. On the march, while the Torah had a place of honor at the front, I was more comfortable mixed into the line. As a white Ashkenazi woman, I was along for the ride. Even as I walked, it was not my journey to lead but to be a part of, to support and help make change.
Jews have just started the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the beginning of the New Year. If the march comes through your community, I encourage you to walk or attend a teach-in. If it does not, I encourage you to lend your support in other ways, to bring about the full potential of both the Jewish and American promise of a diverse people and inclusive communities. Because this is what it means to walk, as our ancestors did, and move a community towards the Promised Land.