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Modern Lynchings

05/28/2020 11:39:40 AM

May28

When does the story of the Exodus begin?  Some might say, the tenth plague, others, the burning bush, but I would argue it was the moment when Moses sees the taskmaster beating the Israelite slave, approaches the taskmaster and kills him in the slave’s defense.  Moses is transformed, and the ramp up to the Exodus, albeit on a shallow slope, has begun.  In this moment, the veils of privilege over Moses’ eyes have lifted; he cannot “unsee” what he now knows.  The tragic irony of this moment comes over the next 40 years as Moses has taken refuge in Midian, hiding, it would seem, from Pharaoh, from God and from himself.  40 years!  I would argue that the 120-year long life of Moses can be divided into three parts:

  • First 40 years – blithely ignorant
  • Second 40 years – in hiding
  • Third 40 years – leading Israel from slavery to freedom (or some semblance thereof)

Tonight begins Shavuot, and with it, the stark reminder that the Exodus is not enough.  Freedom isn’t all that God wishes for us.  Only 50 days following the crossing of the sea, we stand at Mt. Sinai to receive Torah, to hear God’s clarion call – “Anochi Adonai,” “I am the Lord Your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.  And now, here are the obligations by which you will exercise and make meaningful your freedom.”

Sometimes, more often than we’d hope for, being Jewish means removing the blinders that shield our view from the truth.  These days, as you very well know, almost all the news is about the COVID-19 virus. There's been nothing like it in our country for 100 years and so we have been made particularly aware of the interconnectedness of our world and our need to care for each other. Within this context, it is particularly poignant and heartbreaking, therefore, to read of numerous brutal killings of Black men or, at best, White people lying about the behavior of Black men.

I am dumbfounded, which says more about me than about living Black in America. Over a 24-hour period this week:

  • In Minneapolis, George Floyd, a black man, died from a police officer’s knee wedging his neck into the asphalt and suffocating him.  His last words, with his face smashed against the street, were, “I can’t breathe.”  George Floyd grew up here in Houston, graduated from Yates High School, and his best friend was Steven Jackson, former NBA player.  He had two daughters and a family in Houston who loved him.
  • In New York City, a white woman pretended to be gravely threatened by a black man in Central Park, after he had requested that she place a leash on her dog (required by law in this area of the park).  Christian Cooper was literally just sitting on a bench, birdwatching.  Birdwatching!  

I don’t know what’s worse – the absolute apathy for the life of George Floyd, expressed by these four Minneapolis police officers, or the anxious malfeasance expressed by Amy Cooper, who we witness actually forecasting her fictional narrative to Christian Cooper (no relation), and then actually acting it out for police. 

On top of the above:

  • In Atlanta, we are receiving more and more revealing details of the death of a black man, Ahmad Arbury, while out for his daily neighborhood run in an Atlanta suburb.  His death at the hands of self-proclaimed neighborhood patrolmen was caught on cell phone video that was hidden by authorities for 2 months. 
  • And in New Orleans, ten black men, members of the New Orleans’ Zulu Krewe have now died due to COVID-19.  The Zulu Krewe is one of the oldest Mardi Gras clubs, first founded in 1909 to provide proper burials for destitute, freed slaves.  This is yet another horrific example of the unbearably unfair reality that while African Americans represent 13% of the American population, their Coronavirus-caused deaths represent well over 40% of all the COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

In our day and age, (and here I will try to aptly paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates), it is unfortunately simply “legal” for a police officer to kill a black man if he/she is scared for their life (it would appear that that notion has now been extended to folks not in uniform).  And this is to say nothing for the deep and generational, economic disparity that makes it far more likely to die from COVID-19 because of the color of one’s skin.  In the words of President Barack Obama, who spoke them in the name of the Reverend Martin Luther King, who spoke them in the name of 19th century clergyman, Theodore Parker, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.  In the name of Ta-Nehisi Coates, while this may be true, the arcs of the histories of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbury, among so many others, have come to a crashing end.  Please go on line and watch these videos if you are not yet aware of these most recent modern day lynchings. 

This may not be the blog you expected to read today.  But especially on the precipice of Shavuot, as the Torah calls upon us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy people, a light unto the nations, we must open our eyes and absorb these stories that confront and frighten every mother and father of a black man in the US.  Maybe, like Moses, we haven’t or wouldn’t see it before now.  It is unfortunately, so very not new.  Racism has been here as long as America has (and long before.)  Perhaps we have spent 1/3 or even 2/3 of our lives unaware.  Nonetheless, our Torah reminds us that suddenly confronting injustice is a Jewish tradition.  Take it from Moses!

In addition to Shavuot, this week we are reading from the first portion of the 4th book of the Torah, B’midbar, literally meaning, “In the wilderness.” After these (racial) events, I remain lost in the wilderness and uncertain about how to act.  I’m dumbfounded.  Perhaps you disagree with what I am saying here or see things differently.  I’d be grateful if you’d let me know your response.  Your comments will help me understand this complex situation more fully.  To me, it  appears very clear that simply being black or brown or perhaps just “not-White” in America, has enduring meaning that empowers one group over another. 

 

While wandering in the Wilderness (B’midbar), we Israelites had the opportunity to unlearn the values that served us well as slaves and learn new values of self-worth, freedom and discipline –culminating in the giving of the Torah, a new set of values. Generally White folks do not see how central 1) slave labor before 1865, 2) tenant farming/peonage/convict labor after 1865 and 3) the race-based prison system now is to the structure of American society. It’s also difficult for White folks to see this because we have and continue to have, benefited from racial ranking. Seeing recently what Black folks have always understood may drop the blinders from our eyes, but what are we to do now? That’s our wandering in the wilderness. What racial values are appropriate for a White person in 2020? What behavioral expectations flow from those values? The issues seem so overwhelming, particularly when much of our political leadership encourages racial, ethnic, etc., intolerance. “What do I expect from myself on any  particular day relevant to racism?” “Rabbi, what do you expect of me as a Jew?” It may sound pithy and far too simple but the words of the Prophet Micah are a good place to start: “What does the Lord Your God want from you?  To do justice, to show mercy and to walk humbly with Your God.” There is no biblical rationale for remaining ignorant and there is every biblical rationale for the central premise that the color of skin cannot remain the barometer for someone’s personal safety.

 

We Jews know what it is like to be a scorned people.  It’s as much a part of what we seek to forget as what we commit to remember.  Haman says it outright to the King in the Book of Esther, “There is a certain people, the existence of which, your majesty should really not be willing to abide.”  As a people, we have built into our core traditions the constant and fluid reminders that we must get it.  We cannot forget our story.  Having been a persecuted, oppressed, used, and abused people – we do not abide ignorance and benign neglect of our story.  Being Jewish means that we cannot ignore the truths before our eyes.

I remember the first time I watched Roots.  I was about 11 or 12, and my parents insisted that watching this mini-series about African American slavery, was far more important than anything else I may have wanted to do.  Of all of the images that struck me, I’ll never forget witnessing slaves with nooses around their necks, singing: “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land.  Tell Ol’ Pharaoh to let my people go.”  I was a Jewish day school kid.  I knew the Seder back and forth.  We sang this song every year, but never before that moment, did I understand that this wasn’t a Jewish song.  While it was indeed drawn from our central Jewish story, I learned then and much more so, ever since, that the Passover tale cannot belong to the Jewish people if it doesn’t also belong to every other forlorn and suffering one.

As they were half a century ago, racial issues are again a regular feature of our nightly news. How are we to respond? You may disagree with most everything I’ve said here. If so, please let me hear about it. You may agree with everything I’ve said here. If so, please let me hear about it. The stereotype is that Jews like to talk, even debate. Let’s seize on this excruciating racial news, talk with each other, and see if –as Jews—we might help our country cross this wilderness and come to a place of greater hope.

Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780