In this week’s torah portion, Naso, we learn the laws of the Nazarite. Nazarites are those who separate themselves from society by taking a vow of poverty, abstinence or forced separation in order to be closer to God. While the laws around becoming a Nazarite are clearly enunciated in our text, they are also designed to be limited in both time and scope. Judaism teaches that the act of separating ourselves from the society in which we live is discouraged – actively. We need to live IN society – with all its flaws. We cannot separate ourselves from ugliness around us – any more than we can pick and choose to see the beauty in the world.
During these past 11 weeks that we have been socially distant, it feels like the world has become much smaller. We are so involved in our sheltered selves that we run the risk of losing perspective. And yet, as we know all too well, even though everything seems to have slowed – events are taking place around us at a frantic pace.
Minneapolis is a city that I know and love. I served as Rabbi for 9 years at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. It was where I met my wife Sue. Both of our children were born there. We still have family and friends in the Twin Cities, and we travel to Minnesota almost every summer to visit.
Seeing the images of violent rioting in the streets, of looting and fires is profoundly upsetting – not only because of the damage and danger that is very real, but because of the fact that these acts are in response to yet another case in which a person of color – George Floyd (z”l) has died in an act of violence. There have been too many similar incidents like this around the country – where black men are viewed with suspicion, are seen as a threat, are targeted and, all too often have died – not only at the hands of the police.
I do not believe that the rioting in Minneapolis and the responses to it that have arisen all around the country stem from any one particular incident. I also do not see all police officers as evil or racist. Rather, these incidents are the result of a system of White Privilege that most of us who are not African American do not experience directly, do not necessarily agree with, but from which we benefit every day of our lives.
That Mr. Floyd died while he was restrained by the police is a matter of record – but this is not merely a case of police brutality.
How he died. Why he died and the meaning of his death will be determined by both a court of law and the court of public opinion. If, however, we see this only as an isolated incident, or a court case, or a miscarriage of justice – we will have allowed a painful but necessary window into the ugliness, disparity and despair that separates people of color and everyone else in our society to close without acknowledging the extent of the ugliness that it has illuminated. People are not rioting in the streets because, as some of our national leaders have said, “They are thugs.” What we are witnessing – in Minneapolis, in New York, Los Angeles, here in Denver and around the country is a cry of anger, desperation and frustration that has risen from the depths of over 400 years of systematic racism and oppression that I have benefitted from – as has every person whose skin color is not dark.
One merely has to look at recent protests in State Capitals around the country against sheltering in place orders to see images of armed militias made up of mostly white men – some (not all) of whom are affiliated with White Supremacist ideologies and who exhibited no fear or compunction whatsoever as they threatened lawmakers and peace keepers in order to get their messages across. Imagine the response if those same rifle-wielding protestors had been people of color.
Now – please understand – I do not condone violence of any kind. It is wrong. I support our police and first responders as they work to keep the peace. But I understand it. The protests that we are witnessing are a visceral reaction to inequality, inequity and intolerance that are part and parcel of our nation and its history.
As Jews who understand the significance and who bear the intergenerational trauma of genocide and hatred, we have a choice. We can shut our eyes to injustice and say that it is not our issue – or we can use our shared experience to build coalitions of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the African-American and Minority communities.
Over the next days and weeks, you will be hearing about ways that we, as Jews, as caring and concerned citizens, can come together in interfaith prayer, public action, and solidarity. I am currently in dialogue with partners in the African American and general interfaith community to formulate a plan that will help us to become partners and allies with our brothers and sisters who are people of color. Now is a time for banding together against the common enemies of racism and hatred. Now is also a time for us to look deep into ourselves and our souls to identify, acknowledge, come to terms with and work to eradicate the many ways that our society contributes to and perpetuates a system of oppression and persecution – often subconsciously. In order to help us along in this process, I offer the following questions related to our parasha and our current crisis:
1. For those of us who are not African American, can we see how our “Whiteness” affords us privileges that others do not have? In our heart of hearts, can we truly say that this is acceptable?
2. If you were to be pulled over by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, would you fear for your life? Do you think your experience would be different than that of a person of color?
3. How many times have you found yourself judging another person by the way that they are dressed, the color of their skin, the sound of their voice without knowing who they are, who they love, how they pray, or the extent of their fears?
4. Watching the protests and violence occurring in our city and around the country, how can we show support without condoning violence?
5. As Jews, we have inherited the intergenerational trauma of the Shoah. Can we understand how our African-American brothers and sisters may also experience trauma based on 400 years of slavery and its aftermath?
6. For those who may not agree that White Privilege is an issue, are there areas of common ground upon which we can build a foundation of healing - not only from the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd (z”l), but from the increasing mistrust and anger that has been given voice in the streets of our cities around the country?
7. As we continue to shelter in place, most of us (but not all) are relatively comfortable. How can we make sense of the fact that this virus has taken a much higher toll in communities of color than affluent White communities?
My dear friends, these are not easy answers. And yet – we cannot allow ourselves to retreat from society. We are not Nazarites. The ugliness in our society has been peeled away by recent events. Now is the time for us to acknowledge our complicity in building the walls of separation and mistrust in our nation. We also must work to tear them down and build a better future for all children. AMEN