The Long Walk
In January 1864, the U.S. Army forcibly removed between 8,000 and 9,000 Navajo Indians from their traditional lands in the eastern Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory to internment camps in Bosque Redondo in the Pecos River valley. They had been conquered by a campaign whereby the U.S. Army had systematically destroyed their crops and other food sources, and the old and weak among the Navajo had to either surrender or die. During the Long Walk, at least 200 died or were kidnapped along the 300-mile trek that took over 18 days to travel by foot. Their settlement in Bosque Redondo had such catastrophic consequences in death and disease and was so disastrously expensive that the U.S. returned them to a reservation in their original homeland in a second “Long Walk” in June 1868.
We are far too familiar with such Long Walks. The Babylonians marched the Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon. We still remember the cruel taunts of the Arabs as our crushed and defeated ancestors walked out of Jerusalem. The Romans imposed their own Long Walks as they exiled the Jews from Israel. The Germans forced their infamous Death March from numerous concentration camps so that they could finish off the Jews who had refused to die in the camps. The “Walk” offers a glimmer of hope; ‘You are walking to a better place,’ but it is always “Your Walk;” you have to survive on your own. The walkers are vulnerable to enemies who attach them on the way, as the Arabs attacked us, as the Poles murdered us, and as the Zuni and Jemez tribes attacked the Navajo Walkers.
The Walkers must call on heroic strength to survive. They are helpless, starving, exhausted, vulnerable, weak, and desperate, but they are also heroes. Perhaps this is why the Sages describe our laws as Halacha – Walking: They remind us that when we continue to Walk with Halacha, no matter how vulnerable, weak, and desperate we may be, we are heroes. The Sages teach us that Halacha trains us in the heroism of these Walkers.
I can see Jeremiah linking himself to the chain of exiles so that he can walk with them. The Babylonians repeatedly refuse to allow the great prophet to join the lines of exiles, but he persists: He too wants to be a walker. He pays honor to their heroism and empowers them to survive until they reach Babylon where they can thrive. Jeremiah wants them to understand that the strength on which they call as they walk, is the strength that will allow them to continue living.
Many of us reflect on our life’s journey as we prepare for Tisha B’Av and the period of Teshuva that follows. We are encouraged to reflect on our failures and disappointments as a way of experiencing the Churban, or destruction. We should remember that when we recall the painful parts of our journey that we too, called on hidden strengths and heroism. We possess the strength to keep on marching through life; the same strength that will help us achieve our potential.
If we are going to recall our Long Walk, we would do well to rejoice in the strengths we discovered. It will be those strengths that will allow us to repair the effects of Tisha B’Av.
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