A month ago, in the terrifying depths of the Covid pandemic, I urged everyone to heed the advice of the wise and wonderful columnist Connie Schultz: Don’t forget to breathe. (Breathe).
The simple act of relaxing our bodies, taking in fresh air, and then releasing the stress and the pain and the toxins we hold too tightly inside of us. (Breathe).
A single breath. What a simple act of freedom. And, a month later, we realize: What a simple gift from God that can be taken away all too quickly.
It has been eleven days since George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man suspected of passing a counterfeit 20-dollar bill, died in Minneapolis, after a white police officer held him down and pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while his fellow officers kept onlookers at bay. During the last three minutes, Floyd was unresponsive. But throughout the first five minutes, Floyd pleaded for officer Derek Chauvin to release him. “I can’t breathe,” he repeated over and over again. “I can’t breathe,” he begged. Until he couldn’t breathe anymore.
That gift from God, breathed into the dust of the earth to create the first human being, was taken away all too quickly.
For months, Americans have been terrified to take a breath in the wrong place, with the wrong people, lest we are struck down with this insidious virus. A virus we cannot see. A virus we cannot seem to track. A virus that can, and has, returned in places where people have dared to gather once again.
But Covid-19 is not the only viral threat to our nation right now. Bigotry and racism are also viruses that can spread through a community, any community. Like Covid-19 – like any other virus – bigotry and racism are carried and spread by hosts – people and web sites and social networking venues that spew hatred of the “other” – whoever that other may be. And as we have seen, over and over again, our nation offers far too many hosts, whose breath is a foul stench that taints everything with which it comes in contact.
We Jews understand these diseases of paranoia and ignorance and stereotyping and conspiracy theories. We know how terrifyingly quickly they spread. We know how dangerous they are. We have been targeted as “the other” for two millennia. We have been dispersed, expelled, and slaughtered en masse. And even here in 21st century America we are not safe, as the Tree of Life murders have taught us so clearly.
The fact is that hatred of the “other” is hated of all “others.” Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, women. Anyone who does not fit what some people in this country have decided is the epitome of being a true American is a potential target. That’s why, long before Covid-19 shut us out of our Temple building, we had fortified it so that we could feel safe within.
As Jews, we have been targeted. But as a group of mostly middle-class white people, we have little to no clue what it’s like to be targeted every day. Bicycling while black. Jogging while black. Shopping while black. Bird-watching while black. Coming to the attention of police while black. Former Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards wrote this week, “I do not know a black family that does not have a story.” But I don’t know a white family that does have a story.
And George Floyd is the latest in a long list of names of those who took their last breaths at the hands of those charged with protecting them:
Tamir Rice, LaQuan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. And so many more.
George Floyd isn’t the only reason for the protests – both peaceful and destructive. He is only the latest. I do not in any way condone violence and the destruction of property. I am heartbroken for the small-business owners who have waited so long during the pandemic until they could reopen their doors – and now have no doors to reopen. I am sick for the people who depend on the businesses and the jobs that have gone up in flames. But I also cannot condone unthinkingly brutal tactics by those whose job is supposed to be keeping the peace. Violence cannot stop violence. It can only stoke its flames. Flames that suck up all the oxygen and leave all of us breathless.
But breathless for us is different from voice-less for people of color. Dr. King taught us that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Though he disagreed with the use of violent tactics, he surely understood its cause. “I can’t breathe” is the final gasp of human beings who have been ignored, beaten down, rejected, demeaned, deserted.
When Dr. King went to Memphis, where he would be assassinated, he did so in support of black garbage collectors who were being paid a pittance. They wore t-shirts that said, simply “I Am A Man.” All they wanted was for people to listen to their pleas and dignify their existence.
The language of our Torah brings us to the recognition of this dignity. In the Torah portion that many communities around the world continue reading on this Shabbat, God commands a census – one of many in the Bible. This time it’s a counting of the clan of Gershon, Levites who have the honor of serving in the Tabernacle. But an on-line essay by Chaplain Barry Pitegoff, who serves on the staff of Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York, drew my attention to the actual language of the Hebrew: “Naso et rosh b’nai Gershon.”
Now, this could mean simply to count each one of the Gershonites. But naso et rosh literally means “lift the head” of each person, individually. Lift the head. Look into that person’s face, look into his eyes. See each person’s inherent worth. Acknowledge to this person in front of you that they do, indeed, count. Acknowledge it publicly and powerfully.
The dignity of every human life is a fundamental belief in Judaism. The Torah condemns the spilling of blood. The rabbis teach that one person’s blood is as precious as another’s. The Mishnah, the foundational work on which all Jewish law is based, teaches that we all were created from one single human being so that no one – of any place, of any race – could claim superiority over another. We are all equal in the eyes of God, and so we should be in the eyes of each other. There is no “other.” There is only “us.” Naso et rosh – and see and listen and honor.
If the protests of this past week have taught us anything, it is that every single human being has the right to be heard, and seen, and honored, and that every single human being has the right to demand this right for themselves and for others. Behind the Covid-19 masks that so many marchers have worn are the faces of the young and the old, the professional and the student, people who are white and people of color, people who have jobs right now and people who do not. People who fear law enforcement – and people who are part of law enforcement.
In Columbia, South Carolina this week, news cameras captured a remarkable and beautiful sight. As a group of protesters sat and prayed silently in front of the state house, a group of city police officers on the opposite site of the barricade faced them and knelt down silently with them. The chief of police was among them.
All over the country, we have seen places where violence born of anger, resentment and frustration has been stoked by heavy handed tactics of police and military in riot gear, shooting – sometimes targeting — with pepper balls and flinging gas. And we have seen places where the violence has abated when police and military take a calm posture – and even take a knee in acknowledgement of human dignity.
It isn’t happening everywhere. But it is happening. People are looking into each other’s eyes and seeing, not an enemy to be feared or attacked, but a human being to be acknowledged, seen and heard. Naso et rosh.
Yesterday morning, as we were walking our dogs through our little neighborhood down here, we saw that the daughter of one of our neighbors had drawn two posters that she hung from the back-yard fence. One was a rainbow, and over it she had written, “We are all in this together.” The other was a quotation from our prophet Jeremiah – a rather a-typical quote for a man known more for his chastising than his cheeriness:
“For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you – declares the Eternal – plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hopeful future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Jeremiah’s promise is given in the plural — aleichem – to all of us. But God’s hope-filled plans can only come to fruition when we work as God’s partners – work that all of us do for the welfare of all of us.
But: Rabbi! What is the work that we’re supposed to do?!
Well, if you’re like me, you’ve read and received a lot of advice from a lot of people this week on how to respond – to the anger, to the violence, to the systemic racism that has been part of this nation since before it was a nation. One suggestion does not fit all people or situations. And while I’m not one to rely on memes to get a message across, here’s one I’ll share with you that might be helpful:
Some are posting on social media
Some are protesting in the streets
Some are donating silently
Some are educating themselves
Some are having tough conversations with friends & family
A revolution has many lanes – be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction.
Just keep your foot on the gas.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin