At the conclusion of the book of Genesis (Parashat Vayechi), there is a great turning of generations. Jacob gives his final blessings to his children and grandchildren, and then he dies. Joseph’s brothers recognize that the death of their father may have shifted the family dynamics to their detriment. Maybe Joseph was just keeping the peace to please Jacob. Maybe, now that he was dead, Joseph would finally take his revenge for all of the horrible crimes they committed against him!
They make a pre-emptive move, and send a message to Joseph, saying that before Jacob died, he commanded Joseph to forgive his brothers. Joseph weeps as he hears this, saying, “Even though you thought to do evil against me, God meant it for the good, in order to bring about this day, giving life to many people,” (Gen. 50:20). He promises to take care of them and their families, and comforts them, “speaking to their hearts” (Gen. 50:21).
Now, if you have been reading Genesis closely, this vignette might sound familiar to you. It was just in chapter 45 that Joseph said something very similar when he first revealed his identity to his brothers as they came begging for food amidst the famine.
So why would the Torah repeat itself, and what might we learn from this repetition?
One lesson I see here is that teshuvah (repentance) and forgiveness are not a one shot deal. Particularly for really big harms, the process of repair takes time and unfold in multiple layers.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with the clumsy quasi-apology of Joseph’s brothers. They are most likely lying when they claim that Jacob directed Joseph to forgive them. They are motivated by self interest and fear, not remorse or concern for the one they harmed. They do not actually apologize at all when they ask for forgiveness. They do not ask what they might do to repair the harm.
So what, if anything, did they do right? Well for the first time in all of these years, they name their sins out loud to Joseph. They confess.
According to Maimonides, this is the first step in the process of teshuvah, and is necessary though not sufficient, to achieve atonement. It may have taken decades, and it may be messy and selfish and incomplete, but this moment represents a significant step on the path of teshuvah for Joseph’s brothers.
I can see the thought bubbles — “Wait a minute Rabbi, didn’t we already talk about this stuff? It’s the middle of January, not Yom Kippur. Why are we still talking about repentance?”
Our Torah portion is a case in point.
Teshuvah is not a singular, momentary exchange. It’s a process. And just as it took years and the death of a patriarch for Joseph’s brothers to reach a new level of accountability, so it takes more than just one day a year to do the profound work of transformation we call for on Yom Kippur.
We humans have a way of being stubbornly human. Causing harm. Making mistakes. Ongoingly. One day of fasting and reflection may be a start, but after a few months it’s probably time for a tune up. And for the big mistakes, the collective structures of sin, the ingrained bad habits, we shouldn’t imagine that one day a year is gonna do it. I hate to say it, but …
Repentance is always relevant.
Lately I’ve been reading On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. I highly recommend it. In this book, she applies the Maimonidean steps of teshuvah to situations of harm and healing from the interpersonal to the international.
She writes, “remembering that teshuvah is a process is important. People do not change easily. Sometimes when we’re actively trying to change – quickly, dramatically – shifts don’t happen at the cellular level the way that they need to. Instant change is usually not true change…healing takes time for both perpetrator and victim…” (On Repentance…, p. 64-65).
So when the Torah seems to repeat itself, one takeaway for me is that I should expect my own teshuvah to take time and many steps. The inadequate apology of Joseph’s brothers reminds me that it might take multiple conversations, multiple attempts, to acknowledge, repair and heal profound harms.
As I imagine the brothers’ relief when Joseph again forgives them, I wonder what conversations may have been possible after that one. Did Yehudah return a week later on his own to express actual remorse? Did Reuben offer to spend time teaching Joseph’s grandchildren about the traditions of their family? I would like to think that once the brothers knew they were safe, they could feel freer to face their mistakes and make further steps towards a more complete teshuvah.
The great Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman teaches that teshuvah is a never ending process. As we rise in our spiritual capacity, we become aware of new levels and realize that our previous teshuvah was incomplete.
Here’s a piece from Likutei Moharan I 6
Repentance never comes to an end: it must be continuous…
Even when a person knows that he has repented completely, he must still make amends for his earlier repentance. For what he achieved then was good only in proportion to his perception of Godliness at the time. Now, after his repentance, his perception has undoubtedly been heightened. Compared with his present perception, his earlier perception turns out to have been grossly materialistic. He must therefore repent for his earlier levels … Happy is the man who achieves true Teshuvah.
Oy Rebbe Nachman – it’s a high bar! Infinitely high! But it rings true. One day maybe Joseph’s brothers would come to apologize for their inadequate apology. One day, we can hope they would reach true remorse and center Joseph, rather than themselves, in their teshuvah. But it had to start somewhere. And that somewhere is important. As the book of Genesis ends, we don’t have the satisfaction of witnessing a full transformation, but we do get to see that first step of acknowledging harm. And we can hope the first step will lead to others.
When it comes to great collective crimes such as American slavery or the land theft and genocide carried out against Native Americans, the task of teshuvah can seem impossible because the wrong is so massive, and the structures of ongoing harm are so complex and pervasive. Yet as Rabbi Ruttenberg argues, the same principles can be applied to teshuvah on a collective scale.
In moments when I’m tempted to despair or remain paralyzed about the state of racial injustice in America, I find it helpful to remember that teshuvah can be a process of many steps over time. The crimes are so enormous and profound that we should expect a multi-generational, multi-layered process of transformation and healing. With every step forward, as we understand more about the depth of harm and suffering, we will see how much further there is to go. And yet, if we don’t try to think of it as an all or nothing instantaneous fix, there are steps we know we can take.
I’m happy to report that in December, the Reconstructing Judaism movement took one such step as the congregational plenum voted for a resolution in support of reparations. The movement is expected to formally adopt the resolution later this month. I want to share a few highlights with you:
13. Resolved, that in our commitment to work for a national reckoning in the United States through reparations, we collectively acknowledge the harm that has been done to BIPOC communities and the ways that current American prosperity is largely the result of a system built on oppression and white supremacy;
14. Resolved, that we strive to join with BIPOC-led efforts in the United States and to pursue policies and decisions that seek to have our country confront its history squarely and honestly, and to redress the many harms, particularly the persistent racial wealth gap, caused by disparate access to opportunities and resources;
15. Resolved, that we are committed to supporting and advocating for institutional, local, and federal legislation and policies that specifically address the need for reparations, including but not limited to H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, first introduced by the late U.S. Representative John Conyers in 1989;
16. Resolved, that we encourage all Reconstructionist movement congregations and affiliated groups to engage in ongoing learning about systems of oppression and structural racism, and about how these systems have caused, and continue to cause, harm in our communities;
17. Resolved, that informed by and working in solidarity with impacted communities, we call for all Reconstructionist movement congregations and affiliated groups to engage in deep reflection on the ways in which we have participated in or benefitted from racial injustices in our communities and to answer the call of Torah to pursue justice and practice teshuvah by taking concrete steps to repair the harm; and
18. Resolved, that this document should not be, and shall not be, the last communal self-assessment, reflection, or call to pursue reparations for the injustices and structural inequities resulting from European colonialism and white supremacy…
I am so proud of our movement for taking this step! I’m also excited to be joining the movement-wide racial justice pilgrimage to the South in March. These steps may be just a small part of a healing and transformation process that will take generations, but it’s encouraging to see us move forward. In the words of the great rabbinic text, Pirke Avot, “it is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” (Pirke Avot 2:16). May all of us be strengthened in our efforts to enact teshuvah on every scale where it is needed in our lives, and may we find encouragement in knowing that even our small steps forward are worthwhile.
Sukkot, known as “zman simchateynu” – time of our joy, is classically associated with joy more than any other holiday, and it’s not just because we made it past the fast to arrive at the feast, (though there is some truth to that!)
As you may have heard me teach at Ne’ilah, the final Yom Kippur service, I believe that the end of Yom Kippur is a profoundly joyful time. The day of fasting and intense repentant prayer stripped us of our pretenses, reminding us of our flaws and our mortality, confronting us with the urgency to forgive and improve ourselves and our world. Yet we emerge, not grief-stricken, but purified, ready to give ourselves and one another a chance to leave our mistakes in the past and do better. It’s a moment of hope and possibility, even if it is also a moment of exhaustion.
Now, less than a week later, Sukkot arrives, asking us to build a temporary physical structure. Our focus moves from the spirit to the body, as if to teach us –we cannot consider our teshuvah complete if it remains only in our hearts and minds. We are meant to take all of those good intentions and ground them in the real, physical world, right away.
So we build booths, harvest huts that are only kosher if there are holes in the roof. The fragility of the Sukkah extends our contemplation of human vulnerability. But the flavor is different.
Instead of the harsh language of the Unetoneh Tokef prayer from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “who shall live and who shall die,” we relax in the Autumn sun with a glass of wine and read the text traditionally studied on Sukkot, Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, who says, “I praised joy because there is nothing better under the sun for a person but to eat, drink and be merry, for this will accompany them in their labor all the days of life which God gave them under the sun,” (Ecc. 8:15).
This line is often understood to be a cynical argument for hedonism. But I think there is more to it. Kohelet could have said, “eat, drink, be merry and screw the world,” but that is not the message. Instead, the point is – enjoy your blessings. Appreciate the temporary, embodied pleasures of life. We know they are fleeting, but that makes them all the more precious. Do not mourn their fragility or fear their end – take joy in life and let that joy accompany you into the hard work of the world.
Build your sukkah, knowing it is fragile and temporary and destined for the compost heap. Build it and decorate it and sit in the filtered sun and sing. Look up and wonder at the stars which you know will shine longer than any human lifetime. Drink and eat and laugh and love. Take what joy you can even if you know it won’t last forever. Let that joy move you to do what is right and good and life-affirming.
In the words of Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy happiness with a person you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. And whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might…” (Ecc. 9:9-10).
Yesterday my mother commented to me, “Daniel is at such a wonderful age!” He’s almost 9 ½. It’s an age of possibility and wonder – the kind of wonder which led him to say a few months ago, “how come there were so many things before my lifetime that I didn’t even know about?” Daniel is in 3rd grade right now. A few months younger than the kids who were killed in yesterday’s tragedy.
I wasn’t actually afraid to send him to school today. I don’t know why. I tend to be like that. Not afraid to go downtown in Jerusalem during a season of terror attacks. Not afraid to stand on the bima after a synagogue shooting. Not afraid in my conscious mind.
Consciously, I try to be afraid of only the things that are more statistically likely to impact me. And the things that I might be able to prevent from harming me with changes to my behavior. Things like germs. And fascism.
Most likely I’m not feeling afraid because I am just shut down after so many mass shootings. Shootings which only paused when the whole f-ing world shut down during the first months of the pandemic for the sake of an even bigger fear.
Or maybe I’m not afraid because it’s much easier to be angry. And not at the shooter. Angry at the gun lobby and their servants in office who refuse to enact common sense measures for public protection.
Underneath it all, or course is sadness. To imagine the lives of kids like mine cut short. To imagine the wails of mothers like me, and to feel even a small echo of their pain sinking in my chest, welling up from my eyes. My son, my son, I don’t think I could go on if you were taken from me! How can it be that anyone sane thinks ordinary citizens have some unlimited right to access weapons of war when kids like you pay the price?
Thoughts and prayers. Yes. My thoughts and prayers are with the families in Uvalde. And Buffalo. And the long list of darkly famous towns who used to be known only for their beauty and their quirky local customs. I pray for their healing and comfort. I pray that today’s tragedy will move the right people to make more responsible gun policy. But these decades of thoughts and prayers have shown that thoughts and prayers are not enough.
Today I pray with my tears. Tomorrow, I hope to have a chance to pray with my feet. In a few months, God willing, our nation will pray at the voting booth and once and for all eject those leaders who worship guns and perpetuate our culture of violence.
For the Floyd family, we hope that this week’s verdict will provide a measure of solace in the face of unimaginable, tragic loss. Even for those of us at a greater distance, the verdict gives us a chance to breathe a little more freely, to hope that we might yet manifest a more just and compassionate world. A world where Black lives are valued and we can find healing from the profound wounds of our history of slavery and ongoing systemic racism.
One verdict is not enough, just as one Black President was not enough, to undo centuries of harm. Or Shalom will continue to commit ourselves to the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy, and we pray that this moment can be a significant turning point for the good. I am proud to share that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association recently passed a resolution in support of pursing reparations. You can read the full text here. You can support HR40, the bill calling for reparations currently in congress, by clicking here to join our friends in the Reform movement who have organized an easy tool to contact your representative.
I also wanted to share with you some words adapted from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Shawn Zevit:
As a Jewish people of many colors, cultures and backgrounds we know we cannot wait for justice to arrive on it’s own accord. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, Justice shall you pursue!”, declares our Torah. (And our Or Shalom T-shirts!) For so many of us, being Jewish means actively pursuing and co-creating a just, inclusive and equitable world. That means working to eliminate racial injustice, systemic white supremacy and privilege in our own backyards and throughout this nation. We must also be willing to be present to and stand in solidarity with the grief, lament and rage of countless people of color in our country whose lives are at risk daily. We are grateful for and welcome the healing that this just verdict may provide- however, as the Mishnah Sanhedrin states, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if they destroyed an entire world.” Until racially motivated killing, police misuse of power and gun violence are addressed- no true justice can be found in our gates.
May this moment bring us the strength, hope, and healing we need to continue the work of manifesting a world where every human being is treated with dignity and love.
What has this time wrought? What does this world-wide human experience of the pandemic mean and how will it change us?
The answers to these questions will surely evolve and reveal themselves over time. Right now, we’re still in the storm. The sheer volume and intensity of what is yet unfolding prevents us from distilling lessons learned as wisely as we would like, though the sky is beginning to clear.
It will take years to heal, years to understand. In time, we will surely see more clearly, the Before, and the After. A generation will understand themselves in reference to this time – swapping stories of losses mourned and celebrations delayed. We will see clear lines of cause and effect in our economic systems, our personal and political history.
But now – we are still in the jumble of unsorted relentless crisis, blind to what lies just a few months ahead. Given that state, the questions, rather than answers, may be the most valuable and authentic place to reflect. So here I offer, not a catalogue of lessons, but some thoughts about a few of the questions that the pandemic has raised for me over the past year.
What Is Important?
For some, the interruption of the pre-pandemic rat race has helped us to see the important parts of life we were mindlessly sacrificing before: regular family meals, time to exercise, hours wasted in rush hour traffic or work travel, time outside in the natural world.
For each of us in different ways, our deprivation has helped us to appreciate anew the value of the things we once took for granted – hugs from family and friends, shared song, communal meals, celebrations, rituals of mourning, live, in-person music, worship, theater and sports. Restaurants. Toilet paper. Play dates. School.
The pandemic has begun national conversations about subjects which were always important but never before so visible — “essential workers,” racial justice, and our broken healthcare system. It has painfully demonstrated the importance of truth-based policy and politics. It has reminded us of the importance of child care and the relative un-importance of so much we have done without.
Fancy weddings and Bar Mitzvah parties have given way to tiny modest ceremonies. Travel plans and summer camps have given way to stay-cations. Each disruption has asked us to discern again and again – what is important?
And through it all, families who lost loved ones have been reminded through heart-rending grief that the time we have with one another is, of course, the most important thing of all.
What Is Possible?
If you had asked me in 2019 whether I thought I could ever lead a decent service on zoom, I would have rated my chances 0 out of 10. How small was my pre-pandemic sense of possibility!
The pandemic has forced us to adapt, finding connection through a screen, and sacred space in our living rooms, conducting our social lives in masks, and our work in crowded homes with tots and cats wandering through board meetings. We’ve learned to cut our own hair, bake our own bread, and plant our own vegetables.
It’s been a year of testing, shaking hard-baked assumptions of how we must work and travel, of democracy’s inevitability. As a massive socio-economic disruption, the pandemic has given us a rare peek at ourselves. It has shown us that we can change more than we realized. Statues can come down and people can awaken. Global networks of scientists and manufacturers can cooperate to achieve miracles. Neighbors can give each other hope with nothing more than simple, coordinated, public noise-making.
The same volatility and uncertainty that make this moment so excruciating open a powerful window for transformation. As George Packer wrote this year in The Atlantic, this could be America’s “plastic hour,” a “crucial moment” when deep transformation is suddenly possible. The pandemic is a painful disruption no one would choose, but now that it’s here, it may be giving us a chance, maybe a once in a century chance, to make big changes for the good – if only we can remember what’s important and believe in what is possible.
How Will We Emerge?
Throughout this year you may have heard me teach about the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the sage who spent 12 years in a cave. When he first emerged, he was so full of judgement for his fellow human beings that his eyes shot fire and burned them to a crisp. At that point, a heavenly voice proclaimed – “Have you come out to destroy my world? Back to the cave!” He then had to spend another full year in isolation, learning patience and compassion. When he emerged a second time, his question was no longer, “What is wrong with these people?!” but rather, “How can I make things better?” With that kind of question, God let him live out the rest of his days without sending him back to the cave.
How will we emerge from this time? Will we be brave enough and wise enough to let our experience change us for the better? Will we remember what’s important and believe in what’s possible? Or will we come out with wounds and anger asking the wrong questions and destroying our world?
I pray we will all find our ways to be better for this difficult time. To let our suffering give rise to compassion, to let our losses give rise to generosity and gratitude.
What and Who Sustains Us?
I am thankful beyond measure for the people in my family and my community who have been there for me and for one another during this year. For the leaders making difficult decisions and offering inspiration. For the givers who have been generous in a time of tremendous uncertainty. For the worker bees behind the scenes delivering gifts and meals, running tech for services, editing blurbs and packing boxes. I am thankful for those who have stepped up to connect in impossible circumstances, who have found ways to transform social justice in a time of virtual gatherings.
As we look back on this year, I hope that we can catalogue not only what we have lost but also how we have survived. Who have been our guiding lights and our strength? What practices and people have kept us going? What have we learned about our own resilience?
About a week ago, I had the blessing of receiving my first vaccine dose alongside my medically-vulnerable husband. As we sat in the waiting area afterwards, I leaned over and weeped silently on his shoulder, feeling so aware of our mortality, so aware of our privilege, so aware of every blessing. It was one of the most potent “shehecheyanu moments” of my life. Even as I felt tremendous relief, I became aware of the magnitude of healing we all have yet ahead of us to integrate what we have lived through. I pray that we can all be gentle and patient with one another as we walk that road of healing ahead.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehigeyanu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You Adonai our God, beyond within and surrounding us, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this very moment.
This past July in what I now think of as my pandemic journal, I wrote:
Instead of searching for the cause or reason for this (or any) unwelcome experience, I find it more constructive to ask – what can I learn? There is so much to say, and the lessons deepen as we move through this time. The longer we pause, the more we can see with clear vision…
This time out of time has taken so much and taught us so much. The world asks us to learn what endures and what is fragile, what is trivial and what is truly essential. An invisible virus travelling in the air we share, demonstrates how we are all so deeply interconnected, beyond our human ability to comprehend.
2020 ends, but we have yet to answer the central question of our moment — will we let this experience change us collectively for the better? We will begin to ‘live our way into the answer’ in the year to come.
As the year turns, we are still in the midst of being tested. Now, as hope beckons, the wait is even more difficult to bear. Selfishness and exhaustion tempt us to give up. More will die before we get through this.
Yet there is hope. And healing. And light. And love. A new administration is on its way, and Spring, and even a vaccine.
We have reason to believe that in 2021 we will dance and sing together. And if nothing else, 2020 has taught us how precious that will be.
As the Jewish High Holy Day season draws to a close, our Yom Kippur breast-beating gives way to Simchat Torah celebration. The story of Creation will soon remind us that if we did our work of teshuvah* well, we will have another chance to create ourselves and our world anew – informed by the hard lessons of past mistakes fresh in our minds.
But I confess, even after a very intense High Holy Day season this year, I still carry guilt from the past, mistakes that have yet to be fully corrected, as deeply as I regret them and as hard as I have prayed.
Maimonides teaches that complete teshuvah is not achieved in the synagogue when we recite the Yom Kippur liturgy. Complete teshuvah is a matter of greeting a parallel situation and doing something different than what we did before.
In a few short weeks, as we face our Presidential election, Americans will have a chance to enact our teshuvah for the colossal mistakes of 2016. And not just those who will change their votes or get to the ballot box for the first time. To succeed, we must all do something different.
I remember four years ago, the weeks leading up to the election. The worry and the hope. The polls. The leaked tapes and emails. The head of the FBI duped by the Russians.
I remember the Day After. Trudging to drop off my pre-schooler, sharing poetry of heartbreak with other parents in the parking lot, crying with the women who were my son’s loving teachers – a Black woman, a Latina woman, a Muslim woman wearing hijab, and me, the rabbi, huddled in disbelief and fear.
I remember writing sermons of regret looking back – I woke up too late! I didn’t do enough! I remember wondering how quickly fascism could descend, and what I could do as a leader to protect my family and community. I remember conversations with those who thought I was over-reacting – surely it couldn’t happen here…
But since then…
The past four years have been an unending string of catastrophes – for the environment, human rights, democracy and simple survival. Wildfires burn as fossil fuels gain protection. Children are torn from their mothers and imprisoned. Hate marches and shoots in American streets and sanctuaries. Leaders attack the free press and suppress the vote. On the ground, a movement of truth-deniers stockpiles guns, tunes in to wild conspiracy theories, and physically attacks their fellow citizens. A pandemic response proves so inept and negligent that we now mourn over 210,000 Americans.
Putin could not be more pleased.
This time, I may not have the power on my own to change the outcome of the election, but I owe it to myself and my children to do MUCH MORE than I did in 2016. I have resolved to greet this parallel situation and behave differently.
With a pandemic raging, it’s not clear how to achieve that. Some of us are writing post cards. Some are making calls. Some are getting involved in local ballot measures. I know I’ll be giving more political contributions than I ever have in my life.
This time, however things turn out, and especially if they don’t go the way I hope, I want to know I did everything I could. I hope that you will too.
It’s not too late. Give now. Speak up now. Volunteer now. The future depends on it.
In these critical weeks, I pray that our regret and our suffering might be redeemed by this chance to enact our teshuvah, and may each of us move into far more action than we did the last time we faced such a crossroads.
*Teshuvah, often translated as repentance, is the work of turning away from mistakes and bad behavior, righting our wrongs, and becoming a better person.
There are not enough words to properly respond to the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder. I pray that his loved ones, and every family and community who has been afflicted with police violence find comfort and healing. I pray that our nation will awaken to the depth of our structural racism and find the will to do transformative work on every level.
But prayers feel insufficient.
For days I have been watching and feeling helpless. Afraid for the health of my family and community in this pandemic, I felt I should not march or call for marching. So instead I, like so many, have been relating (again) to our moment through the screen, watching and wondering if this unrest would turn out to be a long overdue awakening, or just the next predictable chapter in the unfolding authoritarian playbook.
Yesterday felt like an opening. Or perhaps more precisely, it felt like a taunt.
When the President decided to use tear gas and rubber bullets to clear non-violent protestors so that he could have a photo-op brandishing a bible, I felt, as a member of the clergy, uniquely called to respond. Any God-fearing person who believes in freedom should have been horrified to see this display; the President waving around the sacred scriptures as he violated the rights of free political speech at the heart of our democracy.
The Bible is not meant to be a weapon used for shallow divisive political purposes. It is meant to guide us to be better people in pursuit of creating a sacred society. If he had but opened the book to read the teachings at its heart, he would have been confronted with sacred principles he desecrates every day.
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
You shall not lie. (Leviticus 19:11)
If the stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not wrong him. Like a citizen among you shall be the stranger who dwells with you, and you shall love him as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
You shall not pervert justice. (Deuteronomy 16:19)
Whoever causes the righteous to go astray … he shall fall himself into his own pit; but the upright shall have a goodly inheritance. (Proverbs 28:10)
These ideas belong not only to people of a particular faith. Every religious and spiritual path has similar teachings. Every free and legitimate secular society begins with a premise of fundamental human worth. Genesis 1:27 expresses it this way: “God created humanity in the Divine image. In the image of the Divine God created him, male and female God created them.”
George Floyd was a reflection of God. His murder, any murder, is a tragedy that desecrates God. But it is a particularly egregious sin when the murderer wears a uniform and therefore acts in the name of the society as a whole. It is a sin damaging not only to the victim and his or her loved ones, but to justice and the rule of law itself. Civilization works only in as much as we entrust our courts and police to keep us all safe and mediate our conflicts without vigilante vengeance. Our police are entrusted with permission to use force in order to protect our safety.
Are we safer now that George Floyd is dead? Are we safer now, as our cities rage, and the President threatens peaceful demonstrators with military force? Are we safer now, as despair and desperation boil over after decades, no, centuries, of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown skinned people?
There is a deep sickness in America that we must no longer ignore.
Yesterday the New Yorker published an interview with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, (recently made into a feature film). He says, “We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people…that is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved…”
America needs to reckon with the deep injustices baked into our economic and political structures, our criminal justice system, our education and health systems and beyond. In the Jewish paradigm, we would say we need to do massive collective teshuvah (repentance). Our tradition offers wisdom about the key elements: facing and naming the sin, apologizing to the parties harmed, making restitution, and most important, changing behavior to ensure that the sin is not repeated ever again.
What would this kind of teshuvah look like on a collective level? I do not have a simple formula or policy to suggest. Perhaps we could begin with the new proposal from Representative Barbara Lee to open a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission. Maybe it would mean reparations. Certainly it would mean deep transformational work that touches all dimensions of a society that aspires to be a beacon of justice and equality but so far has fallen short.
The undertaking is overwhelming, but we must not let that defeat us or tempt us to waste our anger on destructive actions which only play into the narrative of white supremacy that got us here in the first place.
We do not need to destroy, we need to heal and help our nation to more fully live up to the promise of our founding vision. I believe it’s still not too late.
Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in the powerful NYT Magazine 1619 Projectabout how she came to understand her father’s patriotism, despite the painful history and ongoing struggles of black Americans:
… My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag…More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, in an overlooked but vital role: perfecters of this democracy…. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves – black rights have paved the way for every other rights struggle…without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different – it might not be a democracy at all.
In this moment of pain and anger, may we take courage and inspiration from the ‘idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts’ that people of color and their allies have made since the founding of our nation to bring us closer to our founding ideals. Let our struggles and our progress not be in vain. May we find the patience, discipline, resilience and skill to defeat the forces of hate which threaten to destroy us. Let 2020 be a year that gives birth to a new chapter of justice and healing, that America may emerge from our sicknesses of racism, selfishness, greed, and violence to build a future of prosperity, peace and joy for every person.
This year, as in every year at this season, I ask myself where the story of the Exodus intersects with my lived experience. How am I Pharaoh? How am I Miriam? Where is liberation happening? Where is there still slavery?
In 2020, we will encounter the holiday as our ancestors did on the very first Passover described in the Torah – hunkered down in our homes as a great plague wreaks its destruction on the world around us. Like our ancestors, we may also be experiencing intense fear and anxiety to witness humanity so thoroughly humbled by an invisible power; a great reminder of our vulnerability. We can only hope that on the other side of this trial we too will find positive transformation.
This crisis exposes all of the ways that our society has failed the most vulnerable among us. It exposes the arrogance and folly of extreme individualism, which conceals our deep interconnectedness. It also demonstrates our ability to stop our daily lives for sake of a collective need, and it calls us to make sacrifice, and be creative, courageous, forgiving, and patient.
If only humanity will learn these hard lessons now, perhaps as we rebuild we can make this moment a turning point for the good. Perhaps this plague will force us to restructure our world according to more sustainable, compassionate values, which turn out to be the key to our own liberation.
And meanwhile — I will really miss gathering in person this year! This is hard! The Seder is so physically grounded, so tactile and sensual, so much about big gatherings in person, that even a virtual experience will surely include many painful compromises.
And yet, when we ask, Mah Nishtana? What is different, this night from all other nights, this year from all other years, I think it’s important to remember that we are not the first generation to face a difficult Passover.
This year is challenging, scary, inconvenient, and a number of other unpleasant adjectives. But come April 8th, the moon of Nisan will be full, Pesach will arrive, and we must make the best of it, just as our ancestors have made the best of seder nights in times of great difficulty.
We will miss gathering with family, friends, and community. Some of us are mourning losses and facing very tough impacts from the corona pandemic. This is a scary time, but that makes it all the more important to remember the ways that we are still free and blessed, as the holiday arrives.