What a week! What a year!
It’s like we’re living simultaneously on a volcano and on a glacier. Everything is extreme, both hot and cold. Our streets smolder and our passions burn, while our jobs freeze up and our lives seem to move in slow motion. Tear gas and tears. There’s no equilibrium, no sense of balance or normalcy or fixedness. It’s terrifying and it’s hard and I fear it’s not going to get better any time soon.
We need to brace ourselves and pace ourselves. It is true to say – and also perversely ironic to say – we need to breathe.
This week, police violence against Black people, Indigenous people, and all People of Color has come, once again, to the national awareness in a way that even the most “law and order” among us cannot deny. Watching that video, what human being couldn’t feel Mr. Floyd’s subjugation and exhaustion within their own body, imagining a knee on their neck for 8 minutes and forty-five seconds? Who couldn’t empathize with the despair of a grown man calling out “Momma”? Who didn’t imagine themselves to be his momma, standing by powerless and anguished as the life drained out of our child?
This is certainly about police action, but it’s too easy to finger law enforcement and excuse the rest of society.
Over in Central Park, who didn’t see, plain as day, how whiteness can be weaponized against blackness? How privilege means believing the rules that govern the world don’t apply to you? That it conditions us to believe that our generally easier ride is, somehow, deserved?
It is absolutely true that good people can have differences of opinion over protesting and looting. I decry it. But let’s not mistake the trees for the forest. This is not about a few nights of looting, as horrid as that is. This is about centuries of the worst possible oppression.
Broken glass can be replaced. Broken bodies and broken dreams cannot.
We are taught in Leviticus: Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow (19:16). And that’s what many of us have been doing – getting on with our lives, delightful and stressful, unique and normal, while our fellow Americans suffocate and bleed. We’ve been so consumed with our own problems – problems that are real and personal and challenging – that we haven’t seen the bigger picture of what’s going on.
And so we’re waking up. This is what it has taken to wake us up. Many of us are getting deeper understandings of the state of our nation this week.
To be clear, some within the Temple Emanuel community have always known. Jews of Color, and our family members of many backgrounds and ethnicities, have always known. Temple Emanuel is heterogenous, thankfully. In this regard, there is no us and them.
And some are learning that racism has many faces. It is not just about attitude – how I feel about “them” or treat “them,” but about the unconscious biases we all hold. These are both real and impactful. It is also about the institutionalized structures that maintain an unlevel playing field and unequitable results.
And we’re learning that if we’re not racist, we’ve got to do the work. That work is both personal and communal.
Personally, we need to educate ourselves – to read and to listen to good sources, to open our hearts and minds to the experiences of Black People, Indigenous People, and all People of Color. We’ve got to take real, meaningful action to dismantle the systems of oppression – including actions that we don’t turn around and promote on social media. We don’t get kudos for doing mitzvot.
As I said in my video last week, I don’t have standing in this conversation to tell you what actions to take. There are many articles and lists readily available. You can find, consider, and select something positive to do. Whatever step you take, it is time to put your shoulder to the wheel.
Communally, we need to get to work. Temple Emanuel is only a small community, but it is our community. Our choices impact the people around us, and we exist within the contexts of the wider Southeast Valley and the national Reform Movement.
Towards that end, the Social Action Committee is working on a course of study and action regarding racial justice. If there’s any upside to Covid-19, it’s that it’ll be easier for each of us to attend those workshops. You’ll get more information through the synagogue.
Further, I invite you to explore the quality offerings at the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement – RAC.org. You’ll find opportunities for learning and action there. The RAC has made Racial Justice a cornerstone of its work for decades, and recently rededicated itself to this cause.
At Yom Kippur, we refrain from eating in order to tap into the pain of our own mortality. At Passover, by contrast, we eat maror to gain empathy with the pain of others. What for, if we don’t activate that empathy when people around us are suffering, and they are telling us – clearly – about their pain? That they want and need our actual, practical support? Isn’t that why we left Egypt?
Here’s what I notice, when I leave the house to go grocery shopping: folks are giving each other wide berths, generally. We look who’s there before heading down the aisle. We slow our roll when another shopper is coming past. We step away from the apples to sneeze. It’s common courtesy, and common sense. Isn’t that what we all need, all the time? A bit of space to do our own thing, to be our true and fullest selves. The ability to breathe without being stifled. The ability to live free without other people imposing themselves onto us, without rules that stack the deck against us. This thing that we claim so readily for ourselves, and yet deny to our fellows instinctively, systematically.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel recognized the bitterness that exists within the human condition, and also the sweet succor of support we can offer one another. “Morally speaking,” he said, “there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
It is beyond time.