Do you remember holding a Torah scroll? Its sudden weight in your arms and soul, the joy of connecting through the generations to Sinai in an instant. When was that moment? Was it being called to the Torah for the first time as Bat or Bar Mitzvah, accepting a Shabbat or High Holy Day honor, or passing the scroll to a child or grandchild? In almost all of these memories, likely that the place of that moment is in the sanctuary.
The contrast between holding a Torah in synagogue and holding a Torah anywhere else but a synagogue is what struck me the most when I held the Torah scroll on Friday, August 7. Along with twenty others, I was on Route US-29 walking for nineteen miles with the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice from Opelika, Alabama to West Point, Georgia, flanked by six Alabama State Police. The Torah had come down the mountain. I held the Torah tight, embracing its teachings, its symbolic presence, my personal memories of holding Torah when I was ordained a rabbi and when I handed the scroll to my son and then daughter as they became Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and my vision of the iconic photo in Arlington National Cemetery of the Torah in the arms of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
The Torah in my arms came from Chicago Sinai Congregation because of the leadership of Rabbi Seth Limmer, who invited his congregation to lend a Torah scroll to make the entire 860 mile journey over forty days from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C. A waterproof backpack with Torah messages written on it and a banner from the Religious Action Center was at the ready if there was any threat of rain. Over 150 rabbis have volunteered escort the scroll, taking daily shifts during the entire journey.
Mirroring the forty days Moses stood on Sinai receiving the message of Torah, we will march about forty days bringing the values, teachings and relevance of Torah to the streets of America. On Friday, August 7, I was joined by Rabbi Peter Stein, from Rochester, NY. Several other fellow marchers enjoyed taking the scroll for a mile or so. Many were not Jewish but felt – as they called it – the inspiration of carrying God’s word.
For those watching us march, on their porches, in stopped cars, once in a while lining the roads, there were only two visible symbols: the American flag and the Torah scroll. That was all: six police cars, about 20 marchers, and two symbols. What could they be thinking? News reports prepared the remote townships about the march. We would sing our songs and shout our chants for justice. Still our march took many by surprise. I am sure that this was the first Torah scroll many had ever seen. I wanted to stop to explain, but we had our marching orders. We did not stop from 8 am to 4 pm that day; the Torah did not rest; our message was on the move. For those who knew even a little, the symbol of the Torah demanded a response: we have Jewish values that are synonymous with Christian values and Muslim values and many other peoples’ values and most importantly with American values: we cannot stand idly by when our neighbors are in need.
W.E.B. Du Bois said, “The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.” Over those many miles, my feet though weary felt lightened by the embrace of Torah. Etz Chayim Hi – The Torah truly is a Tree of Life, and all who hold it tight will find happiness (Prov. 3:18). I will never hold the Torah scroll the same way.
Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has served Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota for eighteen years.