I want to invite you to take a breath. A deep breath. Let it out slowly and luxuriously. Pause now, and, at your leisure, inhale once again. The average person takes 23,000 breaths a day, virtually all of them completely unconscious.
What is it like when we hold our breath? It becomes very uncomfortable very quickly. What would it be like to hold our breath involuntarily? What would it be like to not be able to breath for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? Imagination fails us; we cannot imagine the unimaginable.
And yet, that was the unimaginable horror that George Floyd experienced in his final moments of life. Our instinct is to look away. It’s too awful. The sadness, the anger- overwhelming. The urge is to wring our hands, to put our heads down, and weep.
That’s what we, as a society, have done again, and again, and again, with every death of an unarmed person of color. This week, the tide shifted. Violence is not, cannot, should not be the answer. We would all prefer the path of non-violent protest. Moral authority is lost when we cede the high ground and yield to a mob mentality. We echo the words of Sheriff Paul Penzone, quoted by Rabbi Chernow in her mailing earlier in the week – “As the public demonstrations continue throughout Our Valley and the nation, it is imperative that we separate lawful thoughtful exhibitions of peaceful protest from the egregious acts of criminal behavior and violence. The event leading to the death of Mr. George Floyd was a criminal example of police abuse. It was not policing.”
Despite our vision of the United States of America as a place of refuge for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as a place of “freedom and justice for all,” we have not, yet, lived up to this highest vision of ourselves. Racism endures within our culture. If we are honest with ourselves, and we must be honest with ourselves, it endures in our Jewish community, this despite the fact that 1 in 7 Jews in contemporary America is a person of color. And yet, Jews of color are all too often viewed as outsiders. How many times have people assumed that YOU converted to Judaism? Likely this is not your routine experience. For Jews of color, it is the opposite experience. Funny, you don’t look Jewish.
Not funny. A black rabbinical student reports being asked, “Don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school?” Rabbi Marra Gad, author of The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, writes as follows, “ I am black…white…and Jewish. That is my wholeness. I am here to be seen for all that I am…and I will not allow anyone to deny any part of me.
Look at me. See my color. How beautiful and powerful I am. See that my strength and lifeforce comes from being black. Just as it comes from being Jewish.
The world has tried for far too long to keep black and brown people invisible. And a part of what is happening right now in the streets of America is the voice of the people demanding to be heard saying NO MORE. It is a demand to be seen. And my voice is with them.
If you cannot or will not see and honor me for all that I am, you do not see me at all. And if you do not choose to see all of me, you are not being my ally or my supporter.”
It might surprise you to know that racism in Jewish culture is not a new phenomenon. In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotcha, even our esteemed leaders, Aaron and Miriam, cannot resist calling attention to Moses’ wife’s skin color. Twice they speak out against his Cushite, that is, Ethiopian wife.
This is the first we hear of Moses’ wife being black. It is unclear whether the reference is to Tzipporah, who is initially described as Midianite, or if Moses has taken a second wife. We don’t know what their issue is with her. Here’s the text as it appears in Numbers 12:1- “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken as a wife; a Cushite!” The term is repeated for emphasis. Cushi is still used in modern Hebrew to describe a person of color.
God intercedes immediately to remind us that Judaism is not and never has been about ethnicity. Miriam is punished immediately; no explanation is offered as to why her brother Aaron is not rebuked. And Moses, demonstrating why he is still considered our greatest prophet, responds with kindness, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, calling out to God- “El na r’fah na la- God, please heal her.”
God, please heal all of us The midrash asks why does God initially create only one human being? The answer- so that no one can say that their ancestors are greater. We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. One God, one humanity.
So what are we to do? You don’t need me to tell you to be open to hearing the experiences of our Black friends and neighbors, to recognize racial inequity, to write to our legislators, to take part in justice efforts. We can be proud of our legacy as a Jewish community as leaders in the civil rights movement. Throughout this week, every Jewish organization has issued statements condemning the death of George Floyd, expressing outrage, and calling for justice. You can easily find these calls to action and I hope that you will. The Union for Reform Judaism Religious Action Center is a good place to start.
Last week our Torah study group was reviewing the curses in Leviticus 26. One of these leapt off the page at us, “You will quake with fear though none pursue.” To which one of the students commented- that is the experience of our Black neighbors in contemporary America. Living in a constant state of fear. Even when there is no immediate threat, that haunting and overriding fear of what may happen next. It has to end. We have to be part of the solution.
And yet, this is not a call to action in the world. This is a call to cheshbon ha-nefesh, to spiritual accounting, to introspection. On this Shabbat, let’s remove our metaphoric masks and, with brutal honesty, reflect on our own internalized racism. Only from that foundation of truth can we begin to work for justice.
At its founding, the motto of the United States was, “E pluribus unum- out of the many, one.” On this Shabbat, our national motto is my personal prayer. May God help us to fulfill that vision of “ONE nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
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