Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.”
What is the work we are called to do? Along with nearly two hundred of my colleagues, I was honored to participate in America’s Journey for Justice. Along with Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Minnesota, I walked the last leg in Alabama, ending the day by crossing over into Georgia.
That particular day, moving from state to state, gave us the opportunity to reflect on the significance and meaning of what the name “United States of America” stands for. Is there equal opportunity throughout our country? Are we united in ending racism and discrimination? In particular, I was moved by talking to the men in the group who, like me, are fathers. What are the realities for their children, when they go to school and when they drive down the road, when they go to the ballot box and when they seek employment? It was an exciting moment to reach the end of the long day’s walk and cross over from state to state. The moment of celebration was tempered, however, by what I see as a central aspect of this walk: the desire to create equality and justice all throughout our land.
That particular day was also a Friday, which meant we ended the day by welcoming Shabbat. We sang Shalom Aleichem and imagined the angels that would accompany us on the journey towards peace. We made Kiddush together, and celebrated its message that God brought us forth from bondage: and now that we were taking these actions to move our country from oppression to opportunity. We tore open the rich white braids of the challah and taught our new friends that Judaism’s sacred teachings command us to journey for justice.
In Deuteronomy Rabbah, we read, “R. Joshua ben Levi said: When a man walks on the highway, a company of angels goes before him announcing: ‘Make way for the image of the Holy One, blessed be He.’”
This journey from Selma to Washington is sacred, and God is present in every step down those country highways. We answered hateful cries with songs of peace. We met ignorance and bigotry with love and dignity. We shared stories of vulnerability and fear and we shared hopes and dreams.
And we did it all carrying a Torah scroll, proudly, alongside the American flag. Torah, which begins with the story of creation, because we are all responsible for one another.
During the weeks of this journey, the scroll will be in places where it has never been seen before. May its wisdom and beauty and its clarion call to pursue justice inspire all those on the journey. We may not complete the work, but when the Journey reaches its destination, may we be ever closer to a world of Justice.
Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.