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Bringing Torah into the streets means fighting for justice

Torah scroll.

Image by iStock

It was Shabbat afternoon and I was in the backyard playing frisbee with my son when a member of my congregation’s security team showed up unexpectedly.

“We just received word that all synagogues in the Twin Cities should secure their Torah scrolls,” he said. I was taken aback. “Really?” I asked.

The author.

The author. Image by Courtesy of Alexander Davis

I had seen shops boarded up on my Shabbat walk earlier in the day. But I had been mostly removed from the daily news during the two days of Shavuot. I hadn’t realized how violent protests over the murder of George Floyd had grown.

“Out of an abundance of caution,” he reassured me, “state officials recommend that all houses of worship remove valuable items.” And so, a crew quickly assembled to move the Torah scrolls to a safe, undisclosed location. “Leave the ark open,” the head of our security team suggested. “That way if looters come, they will see it is empty and leave.”

As our security committee removed the last of the Torah scrolls from the sanctuary, I uttered the words of the Torah service: “V’yahi binsoa haaron vayomer moshe. When the ark would set forth, Moses would say, ‘Rise up, O God, and scatter Your enemies. May those who hate, flee. For the Torah shall come forth from Zion.” Thank God, the evening passed without incident. Although white nationalists are reportedly behind some of the arson and violence, so far, Jewish sites have not been targeted.

It was a dramatic and frightening conclusion to an already memorable holiday. I am used to seeing the ark empty when we remove Torah scrolls to dance with them on Simchat Torah. But this was no time for dancing. We were taking the Torah into hiding.

On Shavuot when we celebrate the giving of Torah, we are charged with becoming shomrei Torah, its guardian. But beyond ensuring the physical safety of precious scrolls, we are called upon to observe its laws, to live its lessons. The Torah commands us to pursue justice, to love our neighbors, to strive for holiness, to see in the other the face of God. This is the Torah we receive. This is how we guard the Torah — by upholding its teachings.

In a synagogue, when the Holy Ark is open, we stand up and face the Torah as it is paraded through the congregation. Today, the ark in my synagogue remains open and empty. It is a disturbing and disorienting sight the likes of which we have not seen for over 60 years.

In the summer of 1967, as black residents of Minneapolis’ North Side rebelled against racism, Jewish migration to the suburbs accelerated. My synagogue, like many others, decided it was time to leave. So, leaders emptied the ark and with fanfare, paraded the Torah scrolls through the streets to a beautiful new home in suburban St. Louis Park. There, we built a thriving community. But the Jewish community and the city left much work undone on the North Side. We did not dismantle structural racism. We did not adequately address inequality. We did not fully implement the vision of the Torah.

Today, once again our ark is empty. And while our scrolls are secured, we are called upon to bring our Torah into the streets. By standing up against injustice, by lifting our voices and lifting those brought low, by “praying with our feet,” by seeking peace, we honor Torah. And we become God’s partners in building a world on chesed, on loving-kindness.

Alexander Davis is senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St Louis Park, MN.

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