Fighting Racism: Our Moral Responsibility

Our hearts are heavy and we are horrified at the senseless murder of George Floyd last week by a Minneapolis police officer. We are devastated for the bereaved as they mourn his death and we are outraged at our system of justice which allowed for a human being’s life to be treated in such a callous way. The pain of this moment is amplified by generations of racism, discrimination, and violence against people of color in this country.

What has resulted this week has been a wave of protest, some peaceful and some violent. While violence should never be condoned, its spreading across the country awakens us all to the anger and frustration that many in this country are feeling as the patterns of racism continue to bear fruit hundreds of years after slavery and decades after Jim Crow.

And at the same time, there has been a powerful outpouring of support and compassion for victims of police brutality and acts of hate against black people. First, videos like this one of the Chief of the Michigan Police Department showing police solidarity with protesters show the importance of police leadership displaying messages of compassion and solidarity with peaceful protesters. Additionally, watch commentator, Trevor Noah, respond to this moment on the Daily Show.

We are reading accounts from our colleagues of tens of thousands of people going into the streets to help cities clean up after riots. People of every race, religion, and age wore masks as they carried brooms, shovels, and gloves in order to repair broken hearts by repairing their cities. They encouraged and supported one another to work together to overcome hatred and bring hope that we will build a nation where life is protected, no matter what race you are.

As Jews we know the feeling of being targeted by the authorities and know deeply our role as truth tellers and pursuers of peace and justice. We must commit ourselves to fight for the rights of every American to live in dignity, equality, and safety. In order to do this, it is incumbent on each one of us to do our part in working with our local civic and governmental groups as well as those on the front lines of fighting racism to make real and lasting change. We are grateful for our law enforcement officials who protect our freedom to protest peacefully and thank the majority of police officers who are partnering with us in realizing our vision to rid our systems of racism and inequality.

We will continue to do this important work at Shaarei Tikvah and we thank you for partnering with us in these ongoing efforts. If you are looking for ways to educate yourselves and your children about race, check out this resource from the ADL, this resource or this recent article. In addition, check out this excellent Zoom conversation about speaking to kids about racism.
As we reflect on our role to be upstanders in the face of racism, we can learn from the example of Moses in the story of the Exodus as he responds to the suffering of the Hebrew slaves and a system of inequality long enmeshed in the functioning of ancient Egyptian society. The Torah describes the moment when Moses truly sees the suffering of the Hebrew slaves.
“Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk, “vayar besivlotam,” and witnessed their suffering. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.” (Exodus 2:11)

A midrash on this verse explains that Moses’ “witnessing” describes the way in which Moses tried to ease the burden of the slaves. “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: [If] he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person, or a man’s burden on a woman and a woman’s burden on a man, or an elderly man’s burden on a young man and a young man’s burden on an elderly man, he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh…He set his eyes and mind to share in their distress.” (Exodus Rabbah 1:27)

As a result of Moses’ compassionate response, God is also moved to respond. God witnesses that just as Moses left his role as a comfortable Egyptian noble to support the Hebrew slaves, God felt the urge to leave the realm of Heaven and get involved in the activity on earth. As a result, God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and set in motion the future redemption of the Israelites from Egypt.

Perhaps we too can learn from this example to listen and respond to the cries of our fellow citizens and work towards improving our systems of justice. We cannot allow our fear and relative comfort to prevent us from responding to this moment. Whether it is joining a protest or vigil, educating ourselves, or donating to a charity connected to these issues, our moral code demands response.
Chazak ve’ematz. May we find the courage to respond to the pain of our brothers and sisters with united purpose towards justice and peace.
With blessings for peace,
Rabbi Adam and Cantor Cohen
Click here to read a statement made by the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative Rabbis, in response to these recent events.

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