Arriving back at the synagogue after a long vacation seems somewhat surreal. In many ways, it as if I hadn’t left. In other ways, I feel like I have been gone for much longer.
Taking these 3 ½ weeks off has been a tremendous gift. I feel blessed that I am supported by the congregation with generous vacation time, and this year was the first that we as a family were able to use a good amount of it all at once. Between all of our schedules, we had this time and we took it. We wanted to expose ourselves, and our children, to the important civil rights and justice sites, primarily in the South.
This trip was full of many different experiences. Aside from all the driving, the visiting, the touring, I did get to spend several days in spiritual retreat through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a welcome and restorative respite both from the travelling and from my daily work as a rabbi. It was a week of growth and exploration.
And the road trip itself was one of growth and exploration. Seeing all of these sites of American history, ones we do not generally visit, felt truly important and necessary. As a kid growing up in the east, I was exposed to the historical sites of colonial America, Civil War battlefields, national monuments. This trip I feel like I added a necessary chapter to that narrative.
There is much to reflect on and process, and I know it will take some time. I walk away with a deeper appreciation of place, in that we can understand so much more of our history when we actually visit the places where key events took place. Reading about the Selma-to-Montgomery march in a book or a museum is informative. Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is transformative.
We sat in the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached in Atlanta. We drove along Route 80, the path of the march between Selma and Montgomery. We stood a few feet away from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was shot. To be at these places was to be on hallowed ground, for these were places of liberation, of martyrdom, of hope, and of commitment.
Returning to the congregation in time for parashat Eikev, I open up the Torah to the Book of Deuteronomy and read these words:
Remember the long way that Adonai your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the commandments or not. God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that one does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years… (Deuteronomy 8:3)
The context is Moses preparing the Israelites for their entry into the Promised Land after being freed from Egyptian bondage and wandering in the desert for forty years. At first it reads like falsehood, how can that physically be? But then it reads like inspiration and hope, if we can make it this far, we can make it even farther.
In reading these words, I think about our modern spiritual ancestors, the ones who endured the hardships of contemporary oppression and hatred, the ones who had to travel in the wilderness to attain freedom and liberation, the ones who persevered and fought for justice with their very lives, the ones who were tested time and time again.
The line that has always struck me is, “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” I have a new appreciation for this verse, having visited these historic places, knowing how much of the movements involved marching. And how those involved in nonviolent action—not only the marches but the sit-ins at the lunch counters and the freedom rides on the buses—stressed the need to be well-dressed. Their feet did not swell, their clothes did not wear out, as they had a vision of a better future and did what they needed to do to attain it.
Another verse from this passage is the famous line about “a person does not live by bread alone.” To that, I offer a modern midrash from King himself, in a sermon he gave at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, AL in 1954:
And so because man is an animal with a material body, we must forever be concerned about his material well being. Too often have we talked about the primacy of the spiritual with little concern for the material. It might be true that man cannot live by bread alone, but the mere fact that the alone is added to the passage implies that man cannot live without bread. My friends man is body as well as soul, and any religion that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, and the economic order that cripples them, is a dry, passive do nothing religion in need of new blood. As I look at the economic and social injustices existing in our world, I plead for a church that shall be a fountainhead of a better social order.
Indeed. Arriving back at the synagogue after this trip across America, I have a new understanding and appreciation of this idea. We are people of body and soul. A true spiritual community considers both.