“Ki Tavo. When you enter the Land. Not if, but when. Because you will enter the land.”
That is how our Rabbi and teacher, Rick Jacobs, introduced this week’s parashah to the hundreds of people gathered in Raleigh yesterday evening to demonstrate their support for robust protections of our right to vote. Rabbi Jacobs, the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, stood on the platform flanked by key leaders in the drive to protect and restore voting rights. In his arm was a Torah, the same Torah that has now traveled over seven hundred miles from Selma, Alabama to Raleigh’s northern suburbs, and which will ultimately cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Washington D.C. Every step of the way, it has been cradled by Reform Rabbis and our friends on the march. Leslie, who carried this scroll through the congregation tonight, spent three days earlier this week on the journey. We march as allies in solidarity with the NAACP, which organized the march and named it “America’s Journey for Justice.”
The journey is symbolic and significant: fifty years ago, Selma represented everything that was wrong with the Jim Crow south, and the images from Bloody Sunday helped to galvanize support for the Voting Rights act of 1965. A half-century later, “America’s Journey for Justice” began in Selma on a march not to the Alabama Statehouse but to the United States Congress, which has it in its power to restore and protect rights which state legislatures and the United States Supreme Court have allowed to erode in recent years. I don’t need to tell you all this; you’ve lived in North Carolina longer than I have, and you know just what I’m talking about.
“When you enter the land. Not if, but when.” Rabbi Jacobs inspired us with his optimism, as did the others on the platform. We know in our hearts and in our bellies that we will overturn legislation cynically promoted as reducing voter fraud but having the practical effect of keeping poor people, students, and people of color from the ballot box. Not if, but when.
Tonight, I’m going to share some reflections from my day on the road with the scroll, and then I’m going to invite the folks who’ve been a part of this movement to the bima for the aliyah. But first, a few more words about the parashah.
“When you enter the Land….you shall be grateful, and you shall ritualize your gratitude. And you shall remember where you came from. And you shall look out for the folks who are still not there.” Torah uses different words to say it, and more of them, but that’s essentially the message of the opening passage of Parashat Ki Tavo.
Central to the ritual described there is the declaration of the grateful Israelite farmer of old: Arami Oved Avi. “My father was a wandering Aramean.” How strange, and how wonderful, that our Tradition bids us to recall our humble roots when acknowledging our many gifts. So valuable was the passage that our ancestors placed it at the heart of the haggadah, making sure that we’d retell it and relive it each Passover. Arami Oved Avi.
Rituals like this one can have the effect of bringing us into relationship with today’s wanderers, folks living at the margins of society and folks under attack by the structure of society. The immigrant, the poor person, the disenfranchised person are not other. They are not “others.” Arami Oved Avi. My own father wandered. Today’s wanderers are my brothers and sisters.
The story of a wandering and oppressed people finding its way from Egypt to the Promised Land is not just the ancient Israelite story, of course. It’s a story that’s been retold by other people all around the world. Liberation theologians in South America, Pilgrims arriving on the shores of this continent, Eastern European Jews dreaming of Zion…all saw their lives through the lens of Moses, Pharoah, the Sea, the Wilderness, and the Promised Land. And of course, that story also provided the framework for the slaves and children of slaves who learned it from their masters and made it their own. “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land. Tell ol’ Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”
I’ve sung the words at Pesach year after year, and my Judaism calls me to the belief that all people, and particularly the underdogs, require my love and concern. I got the message in a new way on Monday, walking through rural North Carolina with a Torah on my shoulder, humming ozi v’zimrat yah as we passed through cotton fields. One of my fellow marchers called out into the heat of the day: “Our blood, sweat and tears soaked those fields.”
And I got it even more deeply as we entered the town of Raeford from the west. There we encountered our third detractor of the day, but this time it wasn’t just ugly words hurled at us from a passing car. It was an angry, angry man on the side of the road, spewing hate toward us as we walked past his place of business. “Go home. March backward. You don’t belong here. Booooooo!” And then, to his dog: “Go get ‘em. Get ‘em.” He was a very big dog, but apparently not a very racist dog, and it was a hot day, so he made a half-hearted effort to trot along the fenceline and then sat down. I can chuckle now, but the moment was tense, and terrifying. “This is what it feels like,” I thought. We stayed on task, doing just what we’d pledged, making our statement with our feet and not our mouths.
The quiet dignity of a group of African-American men and women and their allies holding their heads high as they marched in the presence of hate is something I will never forget.
I have entered the Land, and have settled in, and I stand here tonight in the presence of this scroll of Torah and say with gratitude that my father was a wandering Aramean. I am not removed from suffering and oppression. I cannot close my eyes to injustice. I cannot let black lives, black votes, black kids, matter less, or not at all. I cannot enjoy the bounty that is my privileged life without dedicating some portion of it to the struggle.
Arami Oved Avi.