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Blessings, Knees, and Justice

06/05/2020 01:10:23 PM


Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Naso, part two in the Reform world. It includes the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26):

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ (ס)

The LORD will bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ (ס)

The LORD will deal kindly and graciously with you!

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (ס)

The LORD will bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!

The root for the Hebrew word to bless is the same as that for knee. This is why when we bow during the Bar’chu we deliberately bend our knees before hinging at the waist. The bending of a knee can be a powerful image for respect or loyalty. We learned last week, though, that it can also be an implement of death.

            I’m speaking of course about the murder of George Floyd, suffocated by a police officer who continued to keep his knee on George’s neck even after George stopped breathing. Three other officers looked on and neglected to interfere as George cried out that he couldn’t breathe and called for his mother. His gasps, “I can’t breathe” were hauntingly reminiscent of another murder 6 years ago, when an NYPD officer performed an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner. Then, too, there were other officers nearby who could have intervened but didn’t. The only person involved that face criminal charges was the civilian who caught the incident on film.

            And it’s not like Eric Garner was the first or that there have been no other instances of police brutality between his death and George Floyd’s, and unfortunately, I very much doubt George will be the last unless our country enacts drastic changes to our entire law enforcement and criminal justice system.

             While our nation mourns the death of George Floyd and tries to figure out what our future will look like, another police murder has gone unnoticed. On May 28th Tony McDade was shot by Tallahassee police. The details are murky, but what is clear is that another law enforcement officer failed to use de-escalation techniques that they should all know, and took the life of another Black and trans man, whose death was then obscured by a “better” victim. And now, we slide into June, widely considered Pride Month, no less.

            For all those unclear on the history of June as Pride Month, it stems as a commemoration for an event that began on June 28th, 1969 and is generally credited with kicking off a widescale movement for LGBTQ rights. That event, known as “Stonewall” for shorthand, was a riot. It was aimed at the police oppressing the LGBTQ community who were the main patrons of the Stonewall Inn bar, but it also included bricks through windows and other property destruction. If not for this uprising, we would not have the pride parades and festivals that usually mark our Junes, and it’s likely we would still be fighting for marriage equality (or that another riot would have happened since 1969 to push us forward). Despite the progress we have achieved in the last 50 years, there is still more work to be done, including honoring the true heroes who got us where we are today. Harvey Milk may not have been able to rise in political power if Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy had not fought back against the brutal police repression they faced particularly as trans women of color. Trans people of color make up a disproportionate percentage of the victims of murder and sexual assault in this country, including at the hands of officials.

            Throughout our holy texts, God tells us again and again to love our fellow as ourselves; to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow, the orphan (in other words, the socially marginalized); to have one law applied equally to all residents among our people, regardless of race, religion, or citizenship status. When God calls out to our patriarchs and matriarchs and prophets, God is begging for help to redirect people who have gone astray, to make peace, to fight for justice. God alone cannot undo the damage we have done to ourselves as a society, and God alone cannot bless us with grace and peace if we do not bless one another with it. We must do the difficult work of pursuing true justice, something that looks totally unlike anything we’ve seen before because up until now justice has not been served and we are seeing the boiling over of a people too long ignored and kneeled on. We must uplift the voices of those too long unheard. We must honor our history and be honest with the unpleasant parts, and stop whitewashing or pinkwashing state sponsored violence. White people must do the difficult work of owning up to white privilege and cisgender heterosexuals must acknowledge their privilege over queer identities and relationships, and that even goes for white cis-het Jews who also carry their own stories of trauma and bigotry. Oppression vs. privilege is not a zero-sum game or a competition. We are in this together.

            I expect many of you are made uncomfortable by some of this. Sit with that feeling. Inspect why you feel uncomfortable, and let it propel you toward change. Growth never comes from sitting in our comfort zones. After Shabbat, I am happy to talk more with anyone who has questions about what I’ve said/written here. We don’t get anywhere by simply walking away, we must wrestle and engage with our disagreements. That is what it means to be Jewish.

            Black Lives Matter. Queer Lives Matter. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine on you and be gracious to you. May God lift God’s face toward you and give you peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781