A second chance to fight racism

Like many of you, I have been consuming more and more media over the last few months.

First, it was staying up far too late at night to see the latest developments of the pandemic and then, more recently, it has been following the protests that arose in response to the horrifying murder of George Floyd.

And so, a couple of weeks ago on Monday, June 1, I was watching CNN live as the president spoke from the Rose Garden.  His words were disappointing to say the least, but then the screen split as we witnessed the peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square being attacked with chemical irritants.

Their use causes people to experience difficulty breathing and burning sensations on the skin.

Nice.

And so we watched our government turning against its citizens so its leader could have a photo-op with a Bible in front of a church, a church whose members and leadership wanted no part of him or his politics.

It was quite a show.

Quite a spectacle.

Even for this administration.

I turned to my kids in shock – my eyes wide and my mouth agape, shaking my head.

I could not believe what was happening.

Our country was actually turning into some kind of cross between 1984, House of Cards and the Hunger Games – our government attacking its own citizens to placate its dangerous leader.

 

 

 

*    *    *

But today, I want to focus our attention on the opportunity that this moment presents us.

George Floyd’s shocking murder by police officers who suffocated him for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in broad day light in front of people who videotaped it has given us an opportunity to do something good.

It is hard to watch the nonchalance of the police as they slowly squeezed the breath out of him with no care, no concern for human life.

He begs for his life, to no avail.

Watch the NY Times video where the entire arrest was reconstructed, from the time he is pulled out of his car, handcuffed, thrown to the ground and murdered, even as he and bystanders plead for his life.

For those of us who have respect for police, it is a moment of terrible disappointment.

For those of us who still believe in the greatness of this country, it is a time of terrible sadness.

For those of us who care about African Americans, it is a terrible reminder of something we knew, but need to relearn again and again: that this country is filled with racism.

A Slave Auction In Virginia (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It was built on slavery, an economic driver that fueled tremendous wealth for many whites, while systematically depriving blacks of any rights and the ability to enjoy their share of that wealth.

That system of slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws, and many other practices like redlining, which deprived blacks of fair housing opportunities, guaranteed that African Americans would be permanently ensconced at the bottom of the American ladder of growth and success.

And that, combined with racism (including lynchings) and now with white supremacy on the rise, has led to this moment.

We realize that policing needs to change.  Watch the video of a 75-year-old peaceful protestor pushed to the ground by police in Buffalo, the blood flows from his ear.

We have seen the murder of blacks due to hate many times like Charleston, due to vigilanteeism like Ahmaud Arbery, modern-style lynchings, and we are aware of the fear that people of color have every time they are pulled over.

We realize that systemic racism exists and we need to do something about it.  Just as the Jewish community took on a key role in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, we need to step up today.

*    *    *

After the instructions for the menorah in Parashat B’ha’alot’kha, which was the final piece of the Mishkan, their portable sanctuary in the wilderness, the Israelities prepare to leave.  It is now one year after the Exodus – and it has been quite a journey: crossing the Sea of Reeds, standing at Sinai, building a Golden Calf, receiving a new set of tablets, affirming their covenant with God, complaining about the food and water situation, learning the laws that will help them become a holy, moral and ethical nation, complaining some more…and more, they are now ready to go.

Moses on Mount Sinai by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1895-1900, painting, oil on canvas) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But before they leave, they pause.  They stop and observe the first Pesah holiday.  You would think that they wouldn’t need it since they had lived through the actual experience just one year earlier, but they do.  They need to stop and reflect on their history.

Remember – zakhor – what has happened.

Think about this message – even amidst a time of tumult and dislocation which the Israelites are experiencing, they pause to learn and appreciate the lessons of history.  Instead of attacking peaceful protestors to lift a Bible for a bizarre photo-op, open it up, appreciate its history, its contents. What does it say?  What can we learn from it?

The Torah teaches that we should look carefully at the aspects of racism we all hold as in the episode between Miriam and Moses’ wife who was dark-skinned.

Earlier in the Torah, we learn: Lo ta’amod al dam rei’ekha – do not stand by while the blood of your neighbor is spilled.  They can be an African American, a Jew, a Jew of color (a group that particularly needs our love and support), they can be a protestor.

Do not do nothing.

SPEAK OUT.

The Bible also teaches: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you shall pursue.  Dedicate your life to not just doing justice, but PURSUING IT!

Go out of your way to do something!

STAND UP AGAINST INJUSTICE!

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There is another teaching the Torah offers for this moment.  As the Israelites are preparing to offer the Pesah sacrifice, they realize that some members of the community are not ready.  They have come into contact with a corpse and that impurity and that trauma have made them unprepared for this moment.

The tradition then offers them another chance, another opportunity.

The Torah instructs them to offer the sacrifice a month later when they are ready.  They should eat the Pesah sacrifice then with matzah and marror a month after Pesah when you can do it properly and in the right state of mind.

What are the people given?

They are given a second chance.

Friends, we have been given another chance.  Long after the first slaves were brought here in 1619, long after Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1863, long after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, long after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are being given another chance.

What will we do to combat racism?

What will you do?

I am encouraged by the fact that many political leaders are stepping up – local, state and even the federal government, the Senate is holding hearings and some are considering laws to re-vision policing and to fight the systemic racism that is a moral stain on our society.

I am encouraged by all of you.

When Sharon and I came here 16 years ago, we chose Emunah because you do not just talk the talk, you walk the walk.

Rabbi David Lerner attending symbolic funeral procession for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in Boston, MA
Rabbi David Lerner and Temple Emunah members attending vigil in Town Center of Lexington, MA

And we have walked and knelt this week as our community coordinated and participated in several vigils and rallies and a symbolic funeral procession.  We are reaching out to other communities.  We are just beginning.

Toward that end, Paul Neudstadt and I are starting a discussion group to educate ourselves about systemic racism and to consider our next actions.

I hope that many of you will join us on Tuesday at 12:30 on Zoom to read, learn, discuss and grow together, in particular hearing from African American voices.

And we will explore how we can make a difference in this struggle.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”

At the end of the haftarah, we are reminded that God’s power lies not in might, but in God’s spirit – ki im b’ruhi.

It is in the realm of ideas and values.

Right now, we need peaceful protests to change the culture of our country, transforming racism into relationships, changing hate into harmony, and discrimination into decency.

We do not always get another chance to fix something, to make it right.

Right now we, as Americans, are being given a second chance – let us not squander it.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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