Shabbat Bo: You Are Here In Ferguson

In this week’s parashah, we read of how we went out of Egypt.

That’s the command: “in every generation, to see ourselves as those who go out of Egypt.” (Talmud, Pesakhim 116b) Not to imagine as if, but to experience the going out ourselves, in an immediate way. How is that possible? I can’t feel myself enslaved as we were in Egypt; I can’t feel what it’s like to leave home at a moment’s notice and without any possessions.

Isn’t it much more comfortable to regard the stories of our religious tradition from a certain distance? Easier to condemn when necessary, to condescend, to dismiss as primitive and under-developed. But the ancients had an ability to sense reality just as acutely as we moderns. Perhaps theirs was a capacity felt in a different register, but it is a perspective that we might benefit from considering. It requires immersing ourselves in a different kind of mind-set, and heart-set.

Consider:

The story goes that the Israelites left Egypt in the middle of a terrifying night during which every first born child and animal in Egypt died. This is hard to take at face value for a true story, but this is where our tradition offers us another way to understand. The story before us is brutal: slavery by degrees, from which we are extricated with wrenching, overwhelming, all-encompassing suddenness. Innocents die in the process – many Israelites and Egyptians whose names we do not know, many more Egyptians with the onset of the plagues even before the death of the first born, and more still to come at the Sea of Reeds.

There is much suffering in a time of great change, and there is destruction ringing the edges of the most beautiful freedom story. Many are dead, with no clear reason or meaning to their tragic deaths. Refugees may be alive, but their futures are bereft. Those whose action or passive compliance allow the suffering to occur also find themselves suffering, for no direct reason that is discernible to them. We drift in darkness and confusion, and turn upon each other with fear rather than compassion.

If we can see ourselves in Egypt, then we can begin to see ourselves leaving Egypt – that is, not each of us personally, but all of us communally. We can begin to discern the beginnings of movement, the promise of upheaval. “Who is wise?” the Talmud records a Rabbi saying, “the one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)

Reading this parashat hashavua (weekly parashah, Torah reading) in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr day, after a year in which some of those whose deaths would normally go unrecorded came to prominence – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and, only today, Jerame Reid, brings a special resonance. Their tragic deaths seem meaningless. Their families and communities are refugees in their own nation, and we suffer the echoes of the far-reaching, inchoate destruction without any clear sense of connection.

Jewish tradition insists that we will not leave Egypt until we all go out together – and we as individuals will not all get there, but we as the human race must. When we know this in our hearts we will have understood the meaning of the mitzvah: b’khol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, “in every age and age, we are required to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” In every age so far, we have not done it. Until we can see it, we cannot do it; until we are here together, we will never get there.

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Ferguson, and here: What Is a Jew To Do?

It was Monday evening when the news was announced: that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr, in Ferguson Missouri. An indictment does not assume guilt; it merely declares that there’s reason to go to trial to ascertain guilt or innocence. 

According to the path of Jewish law, we are commanded: Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live. (Deut.16.20) Why, the Sages asked, was the word “justice” repeated? Because, they answered, one must pursue justice justly. In Ferguson on Monday justice was denied, in the denial of a fair and open trial.

What are we, as Jews who are obligated to work for the prosperity of the country in which we live, to do? How shall we respond? what is the next step? We are also commanded to use our best learning to ascertain how best to fulfill a mitzvah, in this case the mitzvah of you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. (Lev. 19.16) 

For that purpose, yesterday afternoon I attended the rally downtown at the Justice Center called by the Albina Ministerial Coalition and others, to respond to the news. There I heard a call to action toward those of us “who identify as white” to “use your privilege to further justice.” As local coverage put it:

Bring in a special prosecutor when deadly officer-involved shootings happen, to keep the case unbiased. And after at least four controversial minority deaths that resulted in no charges against Portland police over the years, they want a review of the deadly force policies here, too.

“The killing of Michael Brown has also brought to light many of the unfortunate blemishes – criminal justice disparities, volatile police-community relations, unemployment and economic inequities – that tarnish our nation and that prevent us from being the best of whom we can be,” said Dr LeRoy Haynes, Chair of the AMA Coalition. “This tragedy has exposed the persistent state of emergency that grips not only Ferguson, but our city and our nation as a whole.” (see the complete report here.)

There were no Jewish speakers at the rally. It was an absence I felt painfully, for it speaks of the gap that has widened between Jews and African-Americans in the years since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr Martin Luther King Jr walked hand in hand over the Selma Bridge. Much bitterness has passed under that bridge in the meantime, but we cannot let the distance fetter our efforts to fulfill the mitzvah of working for the prosperity of our country. To be Jewish is to hope, and to work, for a better world. It’s in our prayers and our ethics.

Pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which you live. (Jeremiah 29.7) For Jews, to pray is to imply action based on the prayer. 

But for those of us who identify as white, our collective white liberal guilt, as it is called, can blind us to the best way to take action. We can’t simply approach an African-American of our acquaintance or in the street and offer a hug and a statement of support. That might make us feel better, but it’s not about us. There is real anger in Portland’s minority and disenfranchised communities, as we saw demonstrated when some of the marchers last night turned violent.

Listen carefully, then, to what the leaders of the Ferguson press conference said. Watch for the small acts that we can effectively do to work toward equal justice. Most of all, as one speaker pleaded last night at the Portland rally, “don’t go back to your routine.”  

“You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our backs.” So said Rev Al Sharpton Tuesday at a press conference in Ferguson. There is an ongoing Federal investigation; let’s stay focused. Watch for ways to be supportive. Raise your voice; write a letter; don’t go back to your routine.