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Comfort and Discomfort: Black Lives Matter

Elohai neshama she’natata bi tehora hi:
My God, the breath and the soul you gave to me is pure
(Birchot haShachar/Morning liturgy)

Bitterly the city weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her. Of all her friends, all her allies have betrayed her. They have become her foes.(Eicha/Lamentations 1:2)

Black Lives Matter.

 

In the course of the last few days, our community has been to the top of a mountain of revelation and experienced weeping and connection. As Shavuot – our holiday of learning and joyfully receiving Torah – drew us together, our cities and communities have erupted in gatherings in protest and lament. There is much weeping, few sufficient words and so much to say and do.

Some of us marched in protest in Evanston and Chicago on Sunday and Monday. I was honored to follow the voices and actions of Evanston Black youth as they organized, planned and educated thousands in the streets.  I saw many of you there too.

Many members of JRC are scared and angry – fear of violence, rioting, COVID-19, and seeking safety. For members of JRC who are Black, African American, Latinx, multiracial, this is a very different kind of fear. For our JRC members of color, and our members whose children are Black and Brown, this is a fear for their existence. While White Supremacy affects Jews of all skin colors, its violence and aggression toward people of color is different. It is directly lethal right now, and that is terrifying.

What can we do? There is a lot we can do.

Hineni, here I am. The Jewish value of “showing up” is about presence - physically, vocally, by voting, with financial support, and education. It is our individual and communal responsibility to learn what we need to do, and to take action. 

 

In my Kol Nidre sermon last year, I spoke about the fact that there are no “safe spaces.” While we hope everyone can be as safe as possible, safety is scarce right now. What we have now are brave spaces, hopeful spaces, fearful spaces, loving spaces, oblivious spaces. Safe implies freedom from harm or risk or danger. As a mostly white congregation, many of us have said, “stay safe.” I’m reminded more and more as I speak with our Black and Brown JRC members and fellow community members that there isn’t freedom from harm or risk or danger. The reality is that our world is full of harm and danger right now. For the sake of humanity, we must educate ourselves and take action, for ending systemic racism and creating justice in the world is the only way to make it safer. In memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and the too-long list of those murdered, we cannot wait.

We are part of a story that is thousands of years old. We tell our story about a leaving of enslavement after 400 years, in what could generously be described as taking necessities from our neighbors and dancing across the sea to freedom. It could also be described as chaotic looting and a riot to finally be heard. The Exodus contains both narratives. 

In the words of two leaders who once marched together:

“The role of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

“…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is painful and fearful. And, as Mordechai tells Esther, “perhaps it was for this moment that you were created.” Our JRC community is both strong and vulnerable. Let us do this work, this comfort, and let us create change. Our lives depend on it.

In solidarity, shalom, and hope,

Rabbi Rachel Weiss

Tue, September 29 2020 11 Tishrei 5781