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The Story of US

06/08/2020 01:46:15 PM


Rabbi Brad Levenberg

Supporting text by William R. Groves, Chancellor, Antioch University

I recall the moment so clearly. I was in my second year here at Sinai and still filled with naivete and the optimism that can only come from inexperience. I was leading Torah study for the congregation and one of my conversion students was in the Saturday morning session. By the way, it starts at 9:00, should any of you wish to join. You can study in your pajamas these days.

We were studying the Book of Numbers, the Book of Torah we read during these early summer months. In one set of verses – actually, from a portion that we will read next weekend - Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses and, ultimately, God comes down in a cloud and makes a pretty impassioned speech in defense of Moses. When the cloud departs, Miriam is stricken with a scaly disease while Aaron is…unpunished. Two individuals who commit the same crime and yet receive very different treatment under God’s law. In fact, when our Torah study did indeed go there that Shabbat, we were focusing on the commentators who explored this issue, each explaining why Aaron did not get punished. His sons had just died, said one. Another explained that he never said anything, he just went along with Miriam’s complaints, and “just going along with someone else who does wrong” is not a crime in this part of the Torah. I kept intending to see how this commentator interpreted “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Maybe next year.

In the course of defending Aaron, one student raised her hand and offered another point for which I was ill prepared. She asked, “Are you saying that God punished Miriam differently than Aaron? Are you saying that God is biased?” I recall stumbling a bit in my answer when she said, “That’s not the God I pray to. That’s not my God.” Some of you here tonight were in that room and you may recall that exchange. Or you may not. But for me it was jarring and eye opening and is a moment in my early rabbinate that I knew I would not soon forget. 13 years later and I can still recall that moment in every detail.

Our country is once more reeling from another death at the hands of the very law enforcement institutions meant to serve and protect. I imagine that many of us have seen the disgusting video of the last minutes – the last 6 minutes, in fact – of George Floyd’s life, lying on the ground in Minneapolis, handcuffed, legs bound, helpless, visibly within the control of the police offer and visibly within custody, yet with one officer’s knee still planted on his neck, holding him down while he cries, sobs, and begs for his life, pleading – 12 times – that he could not breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I said it five times and it shook you. George Floyd said it 12 times. He pleaded for his deceased mother to intervene – please, Momma, I can’t breathe – he cried.

In the same manner that his murder shreds our hearts, the callous behavior of the officer shocks our conscience. Yet this is not unique. George Floyd was just the latest in a long history of police brutality and excessively deadly force, which built off of a long and torturous history of vigilante-style murders of innocent men, women and children of color. A couple weeks earlier it was Breonna Taylor. And a few months before that it was Ahmaud Arbery, whose murder was also caught on tape and whose killers were not arrested until two months later when the video went viral. Just yesterday his killers began their process of time in court.

As my student was confronted with God’s behavior in the Torah, she remarked that “this is not my God.” And as confront the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the murder of George Floyd, we may similarly remark that, “this is not the America I know.” Unfortunately, it appears to be the America we have. As a professor of mine wrote, “It is an America with a deep and long issue with race, an America first experienced by blacks not as immigrants seeking freedom but as slaves. Our notions of equality are contaminated by history. While the declaration of Independence declares that, “all men are created equal,” those words were written by an owner of slaves and those words did not include blacks. To the extent that there was any confusion about that, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1857 in the Dred Scott case that slaves were not citizens under the Constitution. They had no rights of citizenship. And while that notion was changed by the adoption of the 13th and 14thAmendments and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, in 1868, they were followed by a century of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation. Those laws had court protection resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1886 that ‘separate was equal.’ That was the law of the land for another 58 years until Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 in which the Court held that ‘separate was inherently unequal’ giving blacks the full and equal protection of the laws. And even then, it took federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to put any muscle behind those words” (Groves, 2020).

“This is not the America I know?” This is the STORY of America.

The story need not only be told through the lens of legislation; our culture is just as complicit, and just as Miriam was punished more harshly than Aaron in our Torah portion, in America, we can see that some people are more equal than others. According to NPR’s Codeswitch program, black men are 10 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, and there are certain behaviors in which I as a white person can engage that my brothers and sisters of color cannot. Breaking up a fight can be deadly, as Eric Garner learned when he was killed at the hands of police offers who arrive. Bettie Jones answered the door to let Chicago police officers in to help her upstairs neighbor who had called 911 to resolve a domestic dispute. Michelle Cusseaux was changing the lock on her home’s door when police arrived and killed her. Tamir Rice was playing in a park when police shot him dead. Walter Scott was going to an auto-parts store. Philando Castile was driving home from dinner with his girlfriend. Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his living room in Dallas. Dominique Clayton was sleeping in her bed. Breonna Taylor, who would be celebrating her birthday, was also sleeping in her bed. And George Floyd was at the grocery store.

Ahmaud Arbery learned that he can’t jog. Eric Garner screamed that he could not breathe. And since January 1, 2015, 1,252 people – sorry, that number was published before George Floyd. 1,253 people learned that they can not be black in America. It is the refrain echoed by protesters across from the White House and in Minneapolis and in New York and in Columbus Ohio and in Chicago and right here in Centennial Olympic Park: I can’t jog. I can’t breathe. I can’t be black in America. I can’t jog. I can’t breathe. I can’t be black in America.

I received an email from a friend asking a few tough questions, culminating in this: What does the end goal look like and how do we know when we’ve arrived?

Just under a week ago, last Saturday night, our dear friend Andre Parker answered with these words: “We’re tired of the excuses. There’s no charges. There’s no convictions. We’re tired of being intimidated. We’re tired of it and we’re not going to stand for it anymore. We’re going to have our voices heard and we’re going to do it in a way that they can not shame us and try to make it like we’re the problem. Systemic racism is the problem.”

What is needed is both a deep conversation about race relations and racial justice in this country, as well as some significant changes in policy and legislation. We need to immediately implement, not just adopt, the 21stCentury Policing guidelines which call for a review of police hiring and training, reforms in the process of police officer discipline with an eye to national standards, updated de-escalation techniques, and trust-building between communities and the police. And police brutality should be made a federal offense and litigated federally. We need Hate Crimes legislation in the State of Georgia and we must advocate for the reform, if not full removal, of Citizen’s Arrest laws in this state and across the country. Is that the end goal? No, but it’s a start.

Returning to words of Torah, Miriam experienced injustice and Aaron experienced privilege. And God gave Moses the opportunity to speak up and speak out. He prayed for healing because he saw Miriam’s pain with his own eyes. We see the pain in the streets of Atlanta. And we hear the cries – I can’t breathe – from the protesters and we hear the prayers in the form of the signs held by the demonstrators. Perhaps, in addition to praying, we can try to understand how, with our hands, and our feet, and our voice…we can be the answer to the prayers of others.




Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780