83 year old Hazel Dukes led our community with words that I’m sure are familiar to all who have and will march: “What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW! Her voice was simply a modern echo of Isaiah’s call (51:1) from the Haftarah for parashat Eikev, for us to be Rodfei Tzedek, Pursuers of Justice.
Standing at our rally at the steps of the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, we chanted along. Having grown up in the 1950s and 60s, I found it humbling to gather in this location where over fifty years ago George Wallace and his Alabama State Storm Troopers reigned. Now, historical signs throughout Montgomery are reminders of how far civil rights have advanced. All the State Troopers, not just the black officers, could not have been more helpful, courteous or supportive of our purpose. Yes, there has been progress, but as we know, the work is not complete.
Speaker after speaker and the experts for our teach-in the next night made this abundantly clear. Echoes from this week’s Torah portion linked to the goal of our marching. “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, our schools matter” calls out to us in the spirit of Deuteronomy’s (15:7), “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin.” Slavery may have ended after the Civil War, but the slave experience and subsequent manifestations continue to oppress the black community. We can relate, “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:15)
Walking in the hot Alabama sun, we chanted for justice and sang songs of freedom and friendship. (That included Hineh Mah Tov and Psalm 150.) On the one hand I felt as though we were reenacting history, but on the other I understood that there was so much more to be done. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20), found in next week’s parasha, echoed loudly. It reminded me that we joined with the black community seeking justice in the past and that we must continue to seek justice today in order that there be a more meaningful tomorrow.
Rabbi Bob Loewy serves Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA.