FOR millions of Americans, native-born or newly arriving, the first sight of the torch-bearing Statue of Liberty as they steamed into New York Harbor has been a matchless moment. But for more than a year the upraised hand stood empty as workmen strengthened the scaffold-shrouded figure and artisans fashioned a new torch to replace the deteriorated original. Now the hand again holds a beckoning torch, properly topping the nearly century-old beacon of the promise of America.
Fittingly, it was in this Thanksgiving week that the new torch was hoisted aloft. Over the years the old torch of freedom in Miss Liberty's hand was variously lighted from within and without. The new one will be lighted by exterior spotlights, as French designer Fr'ed'eric Auguste Bartholdi had intended. President Reagan will turn them on next July 3, in the statue's centennial year.
Like the rest of the statue, the new torch is copper, albeit covered with gold leaf. But more important than its composition is its special meaning of welcome to all new Americans. In her famed poem, engraved on the statue's base, Emma Lazarus has Miss Liberty say ``with silent lips'':
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, . . .
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!