By Eliana Chavkin
“These are the journeys of the children of Israel, who went out from the land of Egypt in troops by the hand of Moses and Aaron…”
–Parshat Masei, Numbers 33:1
We read in Parshat Masei the full list of stops the Jewish people made from Egypt to the land of Israel, where they stop at the end of Numbers. They will spend all of Deuteronomy outside the Promised Land, reviewing the steps they have taken to get there and the rules that will govern their lives when they finally enter.
In some ways, this is a different kind of journey than the one Dr. King described after his march in Marquette Park fifty years ago, one which he called “the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.” For the Israelites, their journey—at least, the exodus from Egypt—is over. For those of us who gathered with JCUA last Saturday to retrace Dr. King’s steps, the journey is still just beginning, although we have been in the desert far longer than the Israelites, and although we do not yet know what the end of our journey looks like.
Still, the emphasis Masei makes on looking back on our journeys was one that carried over our entire weekend, in the unveiling of the new MLK memorial in Marquette Park, the march itself, and the speakers who spoke about the original march fifty years ago. Hearing those veterans of the Civil Rights Movement reminded us both of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Pashat Masei also establishes the “safe city”: cities where one who has committed murder by accident may flee to escape blood vengeance. The removal of the murderer from a community gives residents a chance to heal, because, as the parsha says, “blood pollutes the ground.” Injustice, in other words, intentional or otherwise, pollutes entire communities, and each community member has a stake in restoring justice wherever possible. It is this mentality, I think, that spurred so many members of the Jewish community to come to the march: the feeling that we all have a part to play in fighting injustice. Certainly it was a key component in my decision to join the march and ultimately to join JCUA.
Looking around at the many races, religions, and communities that I saw both at our Shabbat service Friday night and at the march Saturday morning, however, I was conscious that reviewing our journey is not enough. As wonderful as it was to retrace Dr. King’s steps and to visit a part of Chicago that I rarely see, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a march would have been received in the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Parshat Masei tells us clearly that reliving and honoring the past is only one aspect of fighting injustice: we also must move forward and try new tactics. I look forward to seeing how JCUA and the Jewish community approaches the next nine hundred and ninety-nine miles in our journey, now that we have honored the first steps.