A famous phrase, attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential rabbinic teachers and mentors at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 60s. He reportedly used the phrase when asked what it felt like to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the now famous Selma protest walk which took place on March 21, 1965. Asked about the experience by a student in class, Heschel simply said ‘it felt like I was praying with my feet.’
I am not sure the thousands of students who participated in today’s school walk out, organized to raise awareness about the problem of gun violence, would have used exactly the same phrase. But I suspect that many of those students felt like they were, in some way, engaged in holy work. From Maryland to Connecticut to Indiana to Florida, from the west coast to the east, all across our great land, students rose from their seats at 10 o’clock this morning, walked out of their schools, and observed 17 minutes of silence, one for each of the recent Parkland shooting victims. It was a powerful national moment, the like of which I do not remember in my adult life.
These young students remind me of the great prophets of old, the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who set up their pulpits on the street corners of ancient Israel, and with eyes blazing and a profound sense of righteous indignation spoke truth to power. With the NRA trying to muzzle them, with their local politicians treating them with a condescending sweetness, these students have been fearless, and full of faith – faith that they can make a difference, that the world can change for the better, and that ultimately wisdom and reason can prevail over anger and the old back room pay and wink system that creates fertile ground for the NRA’s lies.
The adults around them are weighed down with the cynicism and hopelessness that comes with age, the sense expressed in Ecclesiastes that there ‘is nothing new under the sun,’ that nothing will ever change. We’ve witnessed the Columbines and Sandy Hooks, we’ve been angry and we’ve raised our voices, briefly. But I wonder if all along we felt nothing was going to happen, that there was no real chance for real change. You can’t win when you step out on the field expecting to lose.
Which is why we need these young people to step forward, to speak out, and to be the leaders we evidently cannot be on this issue. Will they succeed, do they have the fortitude for the long haul, the marathon, that this surely will be? We have no idea, and won’t know the answer for some time. But they took a first bold step today, and they think they can win. And that may be all the difference. May they teach their parents well.