Parashat Beha'alotechah and George Floyd's murder
Yesterday, on the Shabbat when Progressive Jewish communities read parashat Beha'alotechah, I was giving the sermon. There was really only one thing I could have spoken about this week. Several congregants have asked me to share what I said for them to reread, so here it is, flawed, no doubt, and in need of more, as so much is at the moment.
Until last November, if you had asked me what the most powerful museum I have visited was I would have unfalteringly replied Yad Vashem, the National Holocaust Museum in Israel. A place I have wept, learnt, and memorialised. But last year, I was attending a conference in Atlanta, the home town of Martin Luther King Junior, and visited The Centre for Civil and Human Rights. It didn’t tell a story I have been directly impacted by, as Yad Vashem does, yet it had a similar impact. Growing up in the UK I was of course aware of some of the history of slavery and civil rights in the US, but the Centre in Atlanta was so beautifully curated that not only did I learn some of the horrifying depths and lengths of this awful, oppressive history, I was able to feel it, and to weep.
One of the most powerful installations invites you to pull up to the Lunch Counter. It came after a piece about the lynching of a 14 year old boy, Emet Till, in Mississipi in 1955. He smiled at the wrong white woman and was killed for it. This was just an illustration of a frequent way mobs carried out what they saw as justice, and met none themselves. So I sat down at a diner counter, on a bar stool, and was invited to put headphones on. I placed my hands on the counter and closed my eyes, in order to be transported to the 1960’s, when such lunch counters were segregated, and black men, women and teens took their lives in their hands to peacefully protest by sitting down and ordering. What I heard through the headphones was a simulation of what a black teen might have heard. The idea was to see how long you could manage to sit there. I was told to go. I was called disgusting names. I could hear the violence in the voice of the speaker. I was told that a fork would be plunged into my neck if I didn’t get out. I began to hear the sound of boots connecting with “my” body. I lasted precisely 73 seconds. When I took the headphones off I couldn’t hold back the tears. Tissues were readily available as this is obviously a frequent response to the immersive piece.
I think what I left the museum with more than anything else was a new understanding of just how deep the roots of racism run. How it will take generations to recover from not only slavery and the violence and murder that went along with it, but generations of laws and systems that continued to oppress vast swathes of American society.
That Shabbat, at a reception before services, a Rabbi introduced me to a delightful family who had recently joined the congregation after the wife had completed her conversion. She was an African American but was fascinated to hear from me about the rise in Antisemitism in the UK. I mentioned my visit to the Centre for Civil and Human rights, and asked if she continued to experience overt Racism herself. Her answer was fascinating. She said that day to day, people are nice as pie – she rarely hears racist comments. Because, she explained, on a day to day basis people don’t need to be overtly racist to her, they know the system is already working against her. A Rabbi I met a few days later pointed out to me that as a banker and a member of the most expensive synagogue in town, her experience would be specific to having made it to a certain level of socio-economic success, an opportunity the majority of African Americans today don’t benefit from. Their experiences, as we’ve heard this week, too often continue to be bleak.
Many of my white friends this week have been reflecting on how to discuss these issues with our children. Black mothers and fathers in America tell me they don’t reflect on such issues, because by the age of 5 their children have to know how to keep safe, how to respond in a way that won’t escalate the situation. They don’t need to be taught about the reality of racism and violence against the innocent, it is their story. In 2001, when the USA suddenly found itself living in a state of terror, the black poet Maya Angelou pointed out ‘but black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years’. Or as Kareem Abdul-Jabar wrote in the LA Sunday times, ‘I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer…’
And this is not just an American story. As Afua Hirsch, British author, broadcaster, journalist and barrister writes:
We want protest, we want change, and we know it is something for which we must fight. Because many of us have been fighting for this all our lives.
We must also not pretend this is not also a Jewish story. In this week’s portion, Beha’alotechah, Miriam and Aaron are found exhibiting what is often identified as an early streak of Jewish racism:
א וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח: כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח
1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
What is wrong with Moses’ wife? Is she a lay about? Has she corrupted Moses? What is her flaw? Their only complaint about her seems to be that she is a Cushite- generally identified as being African. In other words, she was black. She was other, despite also being part of the family.
Black Jewish voices have also spoken up this week, about what it is to walk in the world as a black person, but also about the racism they experience within our Jewish communities. I asked a friend, a Jew born in Rwanda, journalist Yoletta Nyange, if she would add her voice today, and she spoke to me about how this week she has felt liberated to finally name what she experiences so often as Racism, and that whenever she speaks to people she has to navigate and calculate their identity and measure her engagement against that. She wrote:
If anything, Covid19 has once and for all proven that it is impossible to fight Nature. […] if White people were not consulted during their creation by Nature, what makes White people think that they have a say in the lives of Black people at all? They don't. They can't. They have to accept Black and Brown people and live together. But this can only happen if White people remember they too are humans, only then will it be reflected onto others.
We have to acknowledge that within Jewish communities today Racism exists. But Beha’alotecha doesn’t leave us with just the report of Racism. God summons Moses, Miriam and Aaron to the tent of meeting and chastises Moses’ brother and sister. In doing so he not only made their whisperings known to Moses, but showed his disapproval by afflicting Miriam with tzara’at – a flaky white skin condition. What’s key about this particular affliction, was that sufferers were isolated from the rest of the community for seven days. It’s a quarantine designed to protect a closely packed encampment, but afflicting Miriam with it at this point perhaps also tells us something about the nature of gossip, racism, and ‘evil speech’ or Lashon HaRa as it is known in Judaism.
In separating Miriam out, we are being told that there is a risk to the community’s health if she is allowed to stay and continue her bad mouthing.
But today, I want to ask us to think about not quarantining the voices of racism. We need to hear them, to know they are real. I also want to ask us to hear the voices of those who have been the victims not only of Racist words, but of racist actions.
Uju Asika, who writes a blog about children and parenting, turned this week to the topic of George Floyd’s murder and what to tell our children. She writes:
I support any movement against a virus that is far older, much more deadly, than coronavirus. America is its epicentre. But make no mistake, racism is a global pandemic.
For what feels like forever, Black and Brown people have tried to sanitise ourselves so we can move safely through this world. We have hidden the depth of our anger and pain behind a mask of strength and smiles. It’s time for the masks to come off, because they won’t save us. They won’t save any of us. Whether you are a silent carrier or a super spreader, everybody on this earth is infected. And we can’t fight this virus alone. We need a common cure.
A common cure. We need to cure ourselves, and be part of the world wide cure. Rashi asks why does the torah not begin with Leviticus, with the laws and statutes that guide our lives as Jews. His answer is that we read first about the creation of all humanity, as all are equal. We are all b’nei Adam v’Chava, children of Adam and Eve. We are all Betzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. Strife begins early in the Torah, when Cain kills his brother Abel. The Torah writes of this incident that God tells Cain ‘your brothers blood cried out to me from the earth’. Our brothers and sisters blood is crying out to us from the earth. We must listen. We must be a part of the solution. We must own our own missteps, our own blind eyes turned, and as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did, we may need to pray with our feet, take action, and stand up to Racism when we see it and when we hear it.
In the words of Eli Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” My sermons, on average, are about 8 minutes long. Last week George Floyd had Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I thought about leaving this slot silent for that length of time, but there have been so many words to process, and I wanted to reflect a little with all of you on these events that it has been impossible to ignore, and ensure we are living by Wiesel’. I hope we will have the opportunity to make a difference together, to be upstanders together, and to play our part in building the world as we wish to see it, which is what we will now pray for in the words of the Aleynu.