Holding Contradictions, Holding Hands
There is something significant about a handshake.
Not a cold, clammy, mere formality, but a real handshake. When, after a good day’s work, a shared struggled endured, or an arrival at a rest stop on a long road, one human being locks hands with another—locks eyes with another human being—and shares the physical contact, the strength, of two hands from two different people are powerfully clenched together in communion, in community.
I had more real handshakes on August 1st, 2015, than on any other day of my life. This was the day when I was lucky enough to pronounce the final benediction at a ceremony blessing the outset of the NAACP‘s 45-day American Journey for Justice. This was the day when I was able publicly to share words of Torah in Selma before marchers undertook the first steps of an 865-mile trek to make the world a better place. This was the day I was graced—truly honored and overwhelmed—by the privilege of carrying a sacred scroll of the Torah over the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, taking about 700 of the million steps that lay ahead on the sojourn to Washington, D.C. This was the day I walked, double-file down the highway, 12 miles in the blazing 98-degree Alabama heat. Yet what I will remember most about the day was the power I felt with every meaningful handshake.
“We are now bonded,” said my new friend, Mary Sorteburg, in a remarkable embrace that topped everything else. That’s how I felt after my day, only one day, one in a series that will be marched by my compatriots who yearn for justice, by my new partners and friends in the NAACP leadership, and by my colleagues who will march that same Torah scroll all the way to D.C. I felt bonded.
Bonded to Mary and her remarkable husband Jeff Markley, who–despite being the Senator from Oregon–is now my spiritual representative in our Nation’s Capitol. Bonded to the remarkable Cornell William Brooks, the President of the NAACP, with whom I walked that remarkable road as we shared our stories in the blazing sun. Bonded to leaders Leon Russell and Dwayne Proctor, with whom I shared continuing conversations; bonded to Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and a man named Middle Passage, both of whom I came to know as they carried the Torah down State Highway 80. Bonded to Rabbis Denise Eger, Bruce Lustig, Beth Singer and Jason Roditch—who previously had been at best a quick ‘hello’ at convention or sometimes just a disembodied voice on the other end of the phone—and who are now brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Bonded to Susan Solomon, Merle Terry, Jill and Grant Peters, who traveled with me from Chicago Sinai Congregation to help our Torah scroll take its place in the American Journey for Justice. Bonded to the struggle to prove that Black lives matter. Bonded to the fight to end racism, to fight racism, to talk honestly about racism.
And bonded to the Torah scroll. I am not a rabbi overly focused on ritual, often moved by symbolism. But carrying a sacred scroll down an open highway, playing a small literal role in a massive literal journey erased any capacity for me to relate to Torah metaphorically. Even having passed the scroll to a beloved and esteemed colleague, I now feel as if I have a missing limb: part of my mental energy is constantly wondering where the scroll is, in whose treasuring arms it rests. But with the Torah on that historical highway, I have never felt smaller or bigger: I was one brief person carrying the Torah down a long road for one brief time; I could hardly see the end of the day’s walk, let along the final destination. I have never stood so proud and tall as I did as the clock approached 6:00 and my feet were blistering. I was able to carry the Torah proudly, to serve my role, to play my small part. The knowledge of being but a cog—but a vital part of the machinery to make our world a better place—is exactly the lesson of our American Journey for Justice.
August 1 was filled with love, with hope, with solidarity and community. It was also filled with anger, confusion, and disappointment. It was a day of contradiction. We were so generously and safely guided and granted passage by Alabama State Police; how different not only from 50 years ago when police presence on the other side of the bridge signaled danger, but also what a vast chasm from the terror black people continue to face in nearly every encounter with law enforcement. The Chicago Tribune published a wonderful story about my colleagues’ choosing to walk in support of the NAACP; the only ink the Tribune spent on the American Journey for Justice was to document the participation of White people. In one day, I feel as if I built real relationships on the road that will last into the future; in 13 months in Chicago, I have built precious yet few relationships with Black leaders. The contradictions of the day still puzzle me; it is upon me now to work towards their resolution.
On September 15, I will fly down to DC to meet up again with my comrades in justice, to carry that Torah scroll again in my arms as we bring it together into the very seat of our American Democracy. I will travel with members of my congregation, my daughter, and my determination to bring about racial justice. I look forward again to being with Cornell, with Jeff, with Bruce, with Dwayne, with Leon, with Mary, with so many more: the handshakes, the hugs, and the commitment to end racism. A commitment that binds us as tightly as hands clenched together in hope and love.