Standing together for peace
When I was in seminary studying to become a rabbi, I remember thinking I needed to have all the answers. After all, isn’t that what a rabbi is supposed to do? People ask rabbis questions and the rabbi, from a Jewish perspective, supplies the answers. It was not until nearly completing six years of immersion in Jewish text that I learned from one of my teachers a piece of wisdom that upended it all: Know what you don’t know. And when you don’t know, say so.
So here goes:
I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color.
I don’t know what it feels like to be judged by the color of my skin.
I don’t know what it feels like to wear a hoodie and be considered a menace.
I don’t know what it feels like to go for a jog and fear someone may think I am a threat.
I don’t know what it feels like to be pulled over and worry I may be shot.
I don’t know what it feels like to teach my 16-year-old son not how to drive but how to be stopped.
I don’t know what it feels like to have someone threaten to call the authorities and specify my race in the expectation (hope?) that I will be harmed.
I don’t know what it feels like to experience police officers as anything other than helpers.
I don’t know what it feels like to suffer centuries-old racism embedded in so much of America.
I don’t know what it feels like to not be able to breathe, like George Floyd.
Knowing what we don’t know is sometimes the greatest wisdom of all.
What I do know is what the Torah commands with respect to returning lost objects:
לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩... וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם... לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃
“Do not look and ignore it… do not remain indifferent” (Deuteronomy 22:1,3). When our neighbors lose something—especially something as precious as human dignity, equality, and justice—we cannot ignore it or remain indifferent. We must help them find it. We must return to them the American dream that is lost for too many people of color.
Look how quickly Americans collectively responded to COVID-19, doing whatever we could to stay healthy and safe. Scientists, researchers and doctors are working fiercely and furiously to cure this months-long pandemic. We know how to do that. But what if leaders, politicians and teachers worked just as fiercely and furiously to cure the 400-year-old epidemic of racism that has plagued our nation since its founding? We may not yet know how to do that, but we cannot ignore nor remain indifferent to the task.
My father’s teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught: “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done to other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous.”
To not remain indifferent means we must become “different”—changed—by what we see. And that change must inspire us to work fiercely and furiously towards a reality in America that measures up to her promise, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We must continue the centuries-long struggle for racial equality, the eradication of bias and prejudice, and the color-blind search for justice and impartiality. I know that this is our responsibility as Jews, as Americans and as human beings.