EMJC Rabbi Sam Levine’s Sermon June 13, 2020


June 13, 2020

Shabbat Beha’alotecha

You may have seen, earlier this week, the statement that the synagogue released on the death of George Floyd.  We were a little late to the game, but there were queries from some quarters about why we had not released a statement.  I felt that I, at least, had been talking about the matter in my piece for the weekly newsletter and from the pulpit, so it’s not like we were avoiding the issue, but I wasn’t against the idea.  It seemed like every Jewish organization, not to mention every corporation and pretty much every corner pizzeria had released a statement condemning racism and expressing solidarity with the Black community.  So I drafted a statement, and with the input of half a dozen others and the approval of the president, we released it in the name of the synagogue.

As it happens, the statement caused a few ripples.  Some objected to it, seeing it as being critical of the police (which was not at all its focus), but the controversy over it certainly spelled out the difficulty in making statements that are meant to represent a community with a wide range of views.  In retrospect, we might have gone about it differently, but we didn’t, and now we live with the consequences. 

But despite the fact that I stand by it, I confess that I’m a little cynical of statements and declarations. While of course it’s important to spell out your position on a matter of great importance, too often it feels like “just talk.”  In the wake of horrific school shootings, every organization rushes to release a statement; “how could such a thing happen… gun control… mental health… never again…” and then we wait until the next school shooting.  It seems like, all too often, the main value is that it makes you, the institution or corporation or entity feel better, that it provides you with a measure of absolution – but surely that’s not much value at all.

The purpose of our statement was two-fold.  The second thing, I’ll come back to later; the first was simply to acknowledge what we’re talking about.  The opening line reads: For non-black Americans, the murder of George Floyd has brought to national and international attention the second-class citizen status of black Americans in the United States.  I think that is a self-evident truth and I think there’s a great importance in stating and acknowledging what the issue is in stark terms.  The events of the last two and half weeks have ushered in what is arguably the most socially significant moment in this country since the civil-rights era struggles of the 1960s and the Vietnam war protests of the 60s and 70s.  And just as those historic actions and protests were not universally supported, neither, we are finding, is the movement that has risen up around the murder of George Floyd.

For most people who are not people of color, when it comes to racial issues, there is a broad spectrum of awareness, from being in complete denial to seeing and knowing something intellectually, to empathizing, and so on. I think it’s safe to say that most of us are in denial.  In the New York Times this week, Michelle Alexander, the civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness writes about the phenomenon of denial.  After enumerating a list of atrocities committed against black Americans, she says “We know these truths about black experiences, but we often pretend we don’t. As [the late sociologist and criminologist] Stanley Cohen wrote in “States of Denial,” many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about oppression and suffering. He explains: “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

Alexander continues, “In 1963, images of racist white police officers spraying fire hoses and siccing police dogs on young black protesters in Birmingham shocked the world and propelled many white Americans to join civil rights activists in challenging racial segregation. A similar dynamic has occurred with the images of George Floyd’s death. Our nation suddenly caught a glimpse of itself in the mirror and people of all races poured into the streets to say “no more.”

This moment may be seen as a great awakening for white America.  America-of-color, of course, has been aware of – has been the victim of – these dynamics   forever.  So now, the rest of us have to play catch-up; because the importance of this moment in American history cannot be overstated.  And I believe that all of us have a responsibility to act in this moment.  I can’t help but be reminded of the verse from the Book of Esther: urging his niece, the Queen, to act to save the Jews from annihilation, Mordechai tells Esther, “if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.”  I never really understood that line: if “deliverance will come from another quarter,” then, in the larger picture, what’s the problem?  Now I understand: doing nothing is not an option, Mordechai is telling her: you must be the agent of change.  In this moment, we all need to move ourselves farther along the spectrum of denial.  We need to consciously deepen our understanding, to become aware of the realities that face our sisters and brothers, our fellow citizens, in their daily existence.  We need to say “no more.”  This is not a bandwagon – it must not be a momentary fashion, a cause-du-jour.  The fact is – the reality is – that there are millions and millions of Americans who do not receive equal treatment, under the law or under anything else; the fact is that segregation still exists, just not officially; that the vast majority of public space is “white space,” and people of color need to navigate those spaces with an entirely different mindset than white Americans. I’m not saying this because it’s politically correct to say it: I’m saying it because this moment calls for us to face realities that we have been in denial about and obligates us to learn to see through other people’s eyes.

I believe that as Jews, we are uniquely situated to understand. The synagogue statement says “Black Americans and Jews, in different ways, have shared the experience of racism and oppression.” I may have mentioned before that I have had call to spend some time in the rural South over the past few years, and I know the discomfort of being Jewish in a place where the local thrift stores sell confederate flag towels, pictures commemorating lynchings, and even some Nazi memorabilia.  In that place, I am an invisible minority, and yet I am constantly looking over my shoulder and waiting to overhear an anti-Jewish slur, or worse.  Al achat kama vaChama – How much more so! to be a visible minority in a world that teaches intolerance, that so often otherizes and shuns difference, and that privileges majority.  In this world, in this environment, at this time, we need to be asking ourselves, no matter what our color or our background: what is our role in this moment?

Earlier, I made reference to a midrash from the Talmud which offers some insight into the passage that we read today regarding the 70 elders who are assigned to help Moshe (Numbers 11:16-30).  There’s another Midrash, this time from Numbers Rabbah, that begins by quoting our parasha: 

“Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders” (Numb. 11:16):  Did they not have elders in the past?  Was it not already stated […] (in Exod.  3:16 – the burning bush), “Go and gather the elders of Israel?” So for what reason had the Holy blessed One said (in our parasha) “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders?” 

The midrash goes on to explain who these elders were.  If you remember your Exodus story, the Egyptians appointed Hebrew slaves to be officers over the other slaves.  The Torah tells us that the Egyptian taskmasters would beat the Hebrew officers when the Hebrew slaves were not meeting their quotas of bricks.  The midrash picks up there:

When the officers were beaten for the rest of the people, they did not hand them over into the hands of the taskmasters, for they said, “It is better for us to be beaten than that the rest of the people falter.” Therefore when the Holy blessed One said to Moses (in Numb. 11:16), “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders,” Moses said, “My Master, I do not know who is worthy and who is not worthy.” God said to him (in Numb. 11:16 ), “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders Whom you know to be elders and officers of the people.” These are the officers who had handed themselves over to be beaten on their behalf in Egypt because of the required amount of bricks.  Let them come and receive this dignity… Because they handed themselves over to be beaten for the community, therefore (in Numb. 11:16 cont.), “they shall lead with you in leading the people.” This is to teach you that the Holy blessed One equated them with Moses.   [From here] you learn that whoever hands himself over… merits dignity, greatness and the holy spirit. 

I’m tempted to say that a faith community comes together around a shared set of values.  But it is notoriously difficult to define what that means.  We all know, all too well, that scripture can be used to justify or explain nearly anything. I have, in my short time as a rabbi, taken the unequivocal stand that the message of our faith must be self-elevation, community elevation, and the pursuit of godliness.  In the current moment, this means pursuing justice, as per numerous biblical injunctions.  Taking a leadership role might mean that, like the 70 elders of the midrash, we will take hits; they were distinguished by God for that very reason.  They knew that real leadership, courageous leadership, was about protecting the population from ill treatment, from savage harm.  We have reached a moment in the life of our nation when it is time for us all, collectively, to say “no more,” to stand in front of our fellow Americans and take a beating for them.  In our own community, we must listen to one another and we must learn from others.  Those of us who are not the victims of suffering and injustice must open our hearts and our minds to the suffering and injustice that we have so long denied or ignored; we must throw our lot in with our fellow humans whose lives are so materially more difficult than our own.  I realize, of course, that the issues surrounding systemic societal racism are extraordinarily complex and many-tentacled, but this moment calls upon us to right an historic wrong.  With all the qualities of leadership that we have studied today: humility and confidence, throwing our bodies in front of the taskmasters to protect the people, let us fulfill the second objective of the synagogue’s statement: a call to action.

Perhaps the most remarkable line in our parasha – perhaps one of the most remarkable lines in the Torah, is Moses’ response to Joshua – the line that Eve (bat mitzvah) quoted: Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put the Lord’s spirit upon them!  We are presented with an opportunity to be prophets – to do elevated and godly work – work that transcends politics, that tosses out the safe norms that have for so long protected the majority at the expense of the minority.  The task is monumental, but as long as we are fulfilling God’s wish that we be holy, then we may fairly ask, as God rhetorically does in today’s parasha, haYad Adonai tikzar?  “Is there a limit to the LORD’s power?”

Shabbat Shalom