A Message for These Times

This sermon was given on Saturday, June 6, 2020

Dear Friend, 

What an impossibly long and difficult week.  Again.  It has been 12 days since George Floyd was murdered by the police on May 25, and over the past nearly two weeks, we have experienced protests across the country.  Some have been peaceful, some have resulted in violence.  Some police officers have marched or taken a knee alongside the protesters, while others have shot rubber bullets and teargas into the crowds and knocked people to the ground.

We have witnessed anger and rage and raw emotion, as well as love and solidarity, and a clarion call for change.  I feel overwhelmed by all we have seen, and I’m guessing I am not alone.  This isn’t new.  We have known for a long time that our country is broken – that systemic racism is so deeply embedded in American culture that many of us don’t notice or barely notice exactly how pervasive it is.

Our country is broken.  It has been for decades, for centuries.  It was built broken, and it is long past time to fix it.  I admit that I don’t fully understand the scope of what that means, but what I do know is that we must try. And if we fail, we must try again.  We must keep trying until we succeed in creating a society where people who are black, matter as much as people who are white.

It is easy to say and hard to do.  It will be a painful process and probably a much slower one than we would like – frankly, it already has been.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington nearly 60 years ago, and yet, discrimination persists.  It is rampant.  So we must begin by acknowledging that most of us are complicit.  That most of us have said or done hurtful things without even realizing it. 

Our Torah portion this morning is named “Naso.”  While our translation interprets Naso as “take a census,” the word means “lift up.”  Before we can fix what is broken, we need to lift it up – we need to ‘naso’ the issues – we must acknowledge them, name them, pay attention to them, so that we can no longer ignore them. 

We probably already know that Black people earn considerably less than White people.  That Black men are at least five times as likely to be incarcerated as White men, and maybe we know that Black undergraduate students have the highest drop-out rate and end up owing 15% more in loans than any other group.  But do we think about why that is?  It isn’t an accident, and it’s not just ‘because.’

For those of us who are White, we cannot know, firsthand, what it is like to walk through the world in a Black body.  We cannot fully know what it is like to have suspicious eyes on us as we enter or exit a store.  When those of us who are White get pulled over while driving by the police, our first thought is probably, “Will I get a ticket?” not, “Am I about to die?”  Do we think we are putting our lives in jeopardy when we go for a jog around the neighborhood?  That’s all Ahmaud Arbery was doing. Or when we are just hanging out in our own home – like Breonna Taylor?

I wish there were quick easy answers to growing our empathy, but there aren’t. Sadly, this is not the first time that I have spoken about racism, and sadder still, I doubt it will be the last.  Someone inevitably asks, “but what can we do to fix it?”  There are no quick fixes.  It is a slow process that must begin with our own awareness. 

We must learn and we must learn to listen.  Some of the signs I have seen in the protest footage say, “I understand that I will never understand.  However, I stand.”  We don’t have to have the answers, in fact, for those of us who are White, we probably shouldn’t have the answers, but we can learn.  And we can support, and we can listen.

We can “naso” – we can lift up the issues – we can – we must pay attention.

The Anti-Defamation League has called today Justice Shabbat.  In the statement on their website the ADL declares:

“We stand in solidarity with the Black community who yet again is subject to pain and suffering at the hands of a racist and unjust system. We continue to join the call for immediate accountability, justice, and action to dismantle systemic racism in the U.S.

And we honor the memory of George Floyd, who was horrifically murdered by police.

Whether you are gathered at home with family, or gathering virtually with your community online, we encourage you to deepen your understanding of the conversation in our country around racism, systems of oppression and equity.

Over the last few days, we have continued to see the raw pain and emotion of communities in the streets of our country, especially the Black community.

There is much work to be done. We must continue dedicating ourselves to dismantling the thinking and systems that have institutionalized racism.

It is only by listening, learning, teaching about and countering bias, discrimination and oppression, that we will find a path forward.”

I encourage you to go to adl.org/justiceshabbat for resources to read and listen to on the subject of systemic racism in America.  It is a way to begin, to deepen our understanding.

Read a book – “White Fragility,” “The New Jim Crow,” “So You Want to Talk about Race,” “Between the World and Me.”  If you are able, make a donation to an organization that supports African Americans like the NAACP or fights hate like the Southern Poverty Law Center. Question your assumptions – be honest with yourself, what are you thinking?  How are you judging?  Pay attention to your own thoughts.

We often quote Shimon Ha-Tzadik from Pirkei Avot who taught, “The world stands on three things – on Torah, on worship, and on good deeds.”  But Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches a different version.  He also says, “The world stands on three things,” but he believes the world stands “on justice, on peace, and on truth.”

Now is the time to acknowledge the truth, the very ugly truth that is the pandemic of racism in our country.  It is going to take a lot of soul-searching, a lot of honesty, and a lot of listening, but I pray that the truth will lead us to justice and eventually to peace.

Let us take time to learn, to listen, and to reflect.
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

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