“When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
On Friday, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. On Saturday, well over a million people across the United States and across the world protested Trump and his promised agenda. If marching in protest is praying with our feet, then millions of feet were praying. I am proud to say that mine were among them.
Yesterday, I marched in protest with over 1,000 Jews, beginning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, heading down to Midtown, and then turning east to merge with the New York City Women’s March, where we joined an estimated 400,000 people in protest.
I will note that New York City is not Selma. For one thing, I was never worried for my safety, nor for the safety of any of the people packed in around me as we made slow progress up 5th Avenue.
Either way, though, I marched. And if Heschel is correct, then my feet did a whole lot of praying. I prayed down 46 street blocks*, across 4 avenue blocks*, and up another eleven street blocks. Four and a half hours, 3.6 miles.
The march began with a rally inside a synagogue. We heard words of Torah and sang Hebrew songs. The speakers referenced the weekly Torah reading, which was from the beginning of the book of Shemot (Exodus). It includes the line, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.” (Exodus, 1:9)** This verse marks the beginning of the story of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, and also the beginning of their resistance. This story will continue across the Torah portions of the next three weeks, culminating in the Exodus from Egypt.
When the Israelites were enslaved, they cried out to God. They prayed. But they didn’t just pray. They also took action***. Moshe attacked an Egyptian who was hurting an Israelite slave. The midwives saved baby boys even though they were told to kill them. And, as we will see in three weeks, even as the Israelites stood on the cusp of liberation, prayer alone was not enough.
In three weeks, when we read about the Israelites leaving Egypt, the Torah will describe how they found themselves trapped between the advancing Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites “cried out unto the Lord.” (Exodus 14:10) and complained to Moshe. Moshe assured them that God would save them. But then, God said to Moshe, “Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward. And lift up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the sea, and divide it…” (Exodus 14:15-16)
The people of Israel prayed. Their leader, Moshe, prayed. But prayer wasn’t enough. Moshe had to lift up his rod and stretch his hand over the sea. The people of Israel had to go forward. They had to literally use their feet to effect change. Moshe wasn’t praying when he lifted his rod. The Israelites weren’t praying when they stepped into the sea; they were taking action.
There is a Midrash that says the waters of the Sea of Reeds did not split until a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into them and walked forward until he was submerged up to his head. Nachshon took action, and he took a huge risk, and because of him, the waters split, and all of the Israelites were able to cross to safety.
Yesterday, we prayed with our feet, and prayer is important. Prayer helps us to focus on our needs and on our intentions. Communal prayer helps to unite us and energize us, and that is important. But in order to effect change, we need to follow our prayers with action.
I’m still trying to figure out what that action looks like for me. I’m fortunate to live in a state where my congresspeople are already fighting for the causes I care about. I don’t need to call them and convince them to change their votes or to take a stand. So instead of calling them, here are some things I have done, am doing, and intend to do:
- I will continue to follow the news so that I know what’s going on in Washington and around the country. I will do this mostly by reading the New York Times and the Washington Post. I will remain subscribed to both papers.
- I will endeavor to keep track of where my three congresspeople stand on issues that are important to me. Though I expect that they will usually fight for the causes I care about, I will stay alert for the times when they don’t.
- When my congresspeople are not doing what I want them to, I will try to find a time to contact them by phone and let them know. If a few days pass and I have not done this, I will email them instead, because an email is better than nothing.
- When there is an issue I care about and my congresspeople are already fighting for it, I will email them to let them know I support their position and that I urge them to continue fighting. This will help them to see that their constituents support them, and will also give them more ammunition when they stand up in front of Congress and say “X constituents have contacted me about this issue.”
- When I hear about congresspeople in other states and districts who are on the fence about an issue I care about, I will encourage my friends and acquaintances who live in those states/districts to contact the congresspeople in question. I will generally do this via Facebook.
- I will continue to contribute money to organizations that are fighting for equal rights for all Americans. These organizations include but are definitely not limited to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
- As we near the next election, I will try to find out which organizations are most directly helping people vote, and I will give money to them as well.
What else can I be doing to protect the rights of my fellow Americans against the President and all that he stands for?
What else can you be doing?
Yesterday, we prayed with our feet. Today, it’s time to use our feet (and our voices and our hands and our bank accounts and our computers) to take concrete action. Now, it’s time to step into the sea and forge a dry path through the waters.
*In NYC, distances are often measured in street blocks and avenue blocks. Street blocks are shorter blocks. Roughly 20 of them make a mile. Avenue blocks are longer blocks, but are less consistent in their sizing; on average, each one is equivalent to about three street blocks.
**All translations are from the Pocket Torah app. I believe they took their translation from the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Tanach (Bible). I may come back later and change them to a more modern translation.
*** I feel I should note that the actions available to people who are oppressed and enslaved are very limited and often very risky. The Israelites had to take action in part because they had no one else to fight for them. One thing that was noted by one of the speakers was that one of the women who took action in the Torah portion was Pharoah’s daughter, who fished Moshe out of the Nile. She may have been literally the only person in Egypt who could get away with rescuing him due to her high level of privilege as the ruler’s daughter. Those of us with higher levels of privilege need to remember that and follow in her footsteps.