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Thoughts on George Floyd's Death #630

06/05/2020 05:50:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Thoughts on George Floyd's Death


In this week’s edition of The Forward, leaders from 24 Jewish organizations shared their reactions to the brutal killing of George Floyd.

Of those contributions, I was most proud and inspired by the Biblical quotation and comments contributed by the Academy for Jewish Religion — the seminary from which I graduated exactly 10 years ago.

The quote, shared by CEO and Academic Dean, Dr. Ora Prouser, references a time when more than 2,500 years ago, Jerusalem was being destroyed by the Babylonians. Those taken captive were assembled in the city of Ramah before being shipped off to Babylon.

The prophet Jeremiah comments: 

“A voice in Ramah is heard, lament and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her sons, She refuses to be comforted.” (Jeremiah 31:14)

It is a powerful quote wisely projected to modern times, as we mourn George Floyd’s senseless death.

Friends, there is so much right about our country. We live in freedom. Our right to worship is guaranteed both within the constitution and in practice. As a nation, we thirst for justice, and we respect the right of free speech.

Yet, so much sorely needs repair. We have virtually lost the ability to engage in civil discourse.

We have become numb to the occurrence of mass murder. We have lost our respect for truth. Trolls and theorists are provided equal respect and footing with those of education and wisdom.

Rabbis and other clergy are repeatedly told that our jobs are to inspire, comfort and stick to the Bible. Yet sometimes this is virtually impossible — if not unconscionable.

The Torah teaches us to treat and respect our fellow human beings as we wish to be treated and respected.

We are told, as Jews, that our mission is to assist God in healing this imperfect world — tikun olam.

We are taught that the saving of human life is paramount — pikuach nefesh.

Jewish tradition reminds us that within our community and beyond, we should not be bystanders. Rather, we need to be upstanders — doers.

Indeed, the hoodlums roaming the streets, looting and destroying neighborhoods are despicable. There are imported protesters on all sides aiming to stoke division, as they threaten — and attempt to dismantle — our cherished democracy. 

But, let us keep our eye on the ball. 

In our region, we are fortunate that relations between the police and people of all backgrounds are strong and constructive. 

But what about the rest of America?

Is there an African American young man who has not at some point been detained, humiliated and dehumanized? Is this any different from what we, as Jews, have experienced throughout history?

It is easy to point to the deplorable acts of looters. Indeed, it is my profound desire that those who are responsible will be caught and punished to the full extent of the law.

But in the name of honesty, is that the true story?

We are living in an unprecedented time. The coronavirus has inspired us to review our lives — from our relationships, to the way we work, to how we interact, and even the manner in which we pray. The virus has made us all more aware of our mortality.

So perhaps under this Mazal — this constellation — it is time we examined and challenged ourselves with regard to how we both fit and lead within the overall mosaic of racial justice.

Last week in synagogue, during the festival of Shavuot, we read the 10 commandments. The first five commandments guide us on how to interact with God.

The second five instruct us regarding how to behave with each other. Clearly, we need to do better.

Dr. Prouser’s quote in The Forward reminds me of a trend we witness too often. An event occurs, we are outraged, we commit to progress, the topic changes, and the status quo remains.

Yet, our foremother Rachel, Judaism’s guardian of those exiled, refuses to be consoled or comforted. For centuries, as the Jewish people endured systemic persecution, Rachel’s tears flowed. She cries for others, as well.

It is time for us to empathize and stand with our neighbors to achieve a better world — in the name of freedom, in the name of good and in the name of God.

Indeed, don’t we owe those within the African American community and other “marginalized” communities the equal opportunity to achieve the equality that this country so cherishes.

It is that ideal, which as a youth, I valued so much about America. And, as a rabbi, it is a belief that remains close to my heart, as I seek to confirm my voice and responsibility within my adopted country.

As the local African American community stood with us in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, let us, in turn, stand with them.

We can always find an incident, an individual, a violent act to distract us for a moment, but let us keep our eyes focused on the treasured spirit of Judaism — Tzedek, tzedek, tirdoff. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The value of justice is cherished so much, God mentions it twice.

Now is the time for us to double down — to edge away from suspicion, distractive narratives and tribalism.

The great sage, Ben Azzai, held that the most important line in the Torah is Genesis 5:1: “This is the record of Adam’s line.” In other words, no matter the color of our skin, or the way we believe, love or pray — we come from the same sacred source.

It is time to put these Jewish values into practice. Donate, advocate, be part of the solution.

Or, as one of my rabbinical teachers shared this week: “We, as Jews, are not human beings, we are human doings.”

Let us ask ourselves, at the point of this incredible opportunity for positive change, “Are we doing enough?”

More importantly, “What, if anything, are we doing?”

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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