The month of Elul is a time for introspection and reflection, in preparation for the task of chesbon hanefesh, a true accounting of our actions and inactions, before God, on the High Holy Days.
This year I began my personal preparation for the Days of Awe a week early, as I carried a Torah scroll on the streets of Georgia, in the NAACP Journey for Justice — an 860-mile, 45-day march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. On this the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the NAACP in partnership with many other groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism, seeks to both acknowledge how far down the road to equality and justice America has come, in the last half century, and to recognize that we have a long way yet to go, to achieve the goal of the Pledge of Allegiance — liberty and justice for all.
The challenge of my Journey began on Monday, August 10, when, after landing at the Atlanta airport, I had to find a bus to LaGrange, Georgia, a very small rural community. I found a van heading to Fort Benning that left me off at an exit on the interstate and there I was able to find a cab to LaGrange College and the gymnasium where I would spend the night sleeping on a Red Cross cot.
That evening, I received the Torah scroll from the rabbis who had shared in carrying it 18 miles that day, and awaited the arrival of my colleague — and my successor at Avodat Shalom — Rabbi Paul Jacobson. More than 125 rabbis from across the country will join in the march over the course of its 45 days. After dinner each night there is a teach-in, reminiscent of the civil rights marches of the 1960s. After we rabbis read a short section of the weekly Torah portion and related it to our march, we had the opportunity to learn from one of the giants of the civil rights movement, attorney Millard Farmer, and from the NAACP’s new CEO, the Rev. Cornell Brooks.
Millard Farmer is a white man, a Georgia native, who spent many nights during the 1950s and ‘60s in jail, and many days seeking cover from physical and verbal assaults directed toward him for what his neighbors considered the sinful crime of demanding equal rights for people of color. Farmer not only defended hundreds of African Americans and challenged scores of judges to apply the law equally, but he also inspired and trained generations of lawyers to follow his lead. Mr. Farmer, who is well into his 80s, called upon those assembled in LaGrange to bring this simple message back to our communities:
America must continue to march forward on a journey for justice. We have come a long way in the last 50 years since Selma, but we still have a long way yet to go on our Journey to create a just society for all.”
Cornell Brooks was the evening’s last speaker. He told the story of Joshua and Caleb; his message was that Joshua and Caleb were the first people in history who said to the naysayers in their own community We Shall Overcome! This new journey, he said, is his way of challenging himself and all of America to pick up the mantle of Joshua and Caleb, of Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel. With our voices and our feet we should pray these words: We Shall Overcome!
On August 11, I walked 14.5 of the 18 miles of the day’s route. We woke up at 5, had breakfast at 6, and took a 30-minute bus ride to our starting point. It ended near the Atlanta airport, where we took a bus to The Temple in downtown Atlanta. The participants, ranging from teenagers to a couple of people older than my 67 years, came from across America.
During a morning break on the bus, I noticed one of my new African-American friends, with whom I had been walking and jovially talking a few minutes earlier, had tears in his eyes. He had just heard from his daughter that two her friends had been shot in Kansas the previous night. One was dead and the other was in serious condition. Listening to that story, I knew why I had to keep walking in the 95 degree heat. The injustice of our gun laws had struck again! We have a long way yet to go on the journey to justice and freedom.
Forty-nine years ago, a freshman at Vanderbilt, I went on my first civil rights march. Back then, police often blocked the demonstrators’ path, and they arrested us if we left the sidewalk to walk in the street. Now, the police escort us, holding back traffic in order to give us space to “pray with our feet.” What has not changed is the love and kindness of my fellow marchers. Carrying a Torah scroll on this Journey for Justice was a great honor. It was not only a catalyst for engaging in meaningful spiritual and cultural sharing with some truly dedicated Christian clergy and lay people, but it reminded me, as I approach the upcoming Days of Awe, that we American Jews are truly blessed.
And our blessings come with responsibilities.
May 5776 be a year when we walk together with our fellow Americans and our fellow Jews everywhere, carrying the teachings of Torah with us, and praying with our hearts, our voices, our hands, and our feet for peace in our hearts and our homes, on our streets, and throughout the world.