I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led marchers to that city from Selma, sixty years after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus there, and two days after America’s Journey for Justice began. As I explained to my congregation before I left, after too many needless deaths of African-Americans over the past year, participating in the march felt like the most powerful way I could stand up for the Jewish teaching that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). So I set out for Montgomery, together with two members of my congregation, to march and most proudly, to carry the Torah along the route.
My connecting flight to Montgomery was on a small plane, the kind only big enough for one flight attendant. The flight attendant was a young African-American woman. “Welcome aboard,” she greeted us before take-off, “my name is Torah.”
Coincidence? That’s one way of describing it.
I had to know more about her name, so after the plane had landed, I told her a little bit about the Jewish meaning of Torah, and why I was coming to Alabama. She corrected me on the spelling – it’s actually Tora – and she told me it was her nickname.
Standing face to face with her, I thought of a legend about the early Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezrich, who used to tell his students: Don’t just talk about the Torah. Be Torah.
And here she was.
It was a good reminder that the most sacred aspect of my journey would be listening to other people’s Torah. Fundamentally, it’s not about issues, politics or policy; it’s about people. I came to the march, first and foremost, because I have plenty to learn about other people’s experiences with injustice in our society. Just as importantly, I have plenty to learn from other people’s insights into how we can overcome it together. The march seemed like an incredible opportunity to learn from other people who are busy being Torah.
So who was the Torah I learned while marching? I met Alabama churchgoers, New York union workers, college student activists, people who lived through the civil rights struggles of fifty years ago, and their grandchildren in tow, many wearing t-shirts with pictures of Dr. King.
I listened as one young organizer addressed the room, taking for granted the fact that everybody there knew someone who had been killed by a police officer, and most people nodded in agreement.
I chatted with one of the Alabama State Troopers who protected our group all day, in poignant contrast to the march of 1965, and who told me it was an honor that he held the Torah scroll for a few moments.
I commiserated about the heat with a woman who told me she had been searching for a job for so long, so long.
I sat on the bus with a retired minister and firefighter who had been beaten walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King, who described his childhood dread of the Ku Klux Klan, and the promotions he knew he had been passed over for at the firehouse because of his race, who explained to me why he felt so uplifted organizing this march, and why he was so confident about the power of the next generation to fight for a better world.
Rabbi Leib ben Sarah elaborates on the principle associated with the Maggid: “A person should see to it that all her actions are a Torah, and that she herself becomes so entirely a Torah that one can learn from her actions and her motions and her motionless clinging to God.”*
I don’t know too many people who can claim to live up to that challenge all the time, but marching in Montgomery seemed like an important step in trying to meet it a little more fully. Like the other 150 Reform rabbis who signed up to participate in the march, I feel honored to have been able to participate in such a historic and sacred event, and privileged to have had the chance to jump on a plane to practice what I preach.
By carrying the Torah, I learned so much Torah; by learning so much Torah, I have seen again just how much this world needs us to be Torah.
*Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim. I adjusted the language for gender in honor of Tora.
Rabbi Beth Kalisch lives in Philadelphia and serves as the spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA.