פרשת נשא, תש״פ
Parshat Naso, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, June 6th, 2020
Pursuing Justice Through Knowing My Neighbor
Yesterday afternoon, during an interfaith Zoom call with clergy from all over the state, I found myself in a breakout session with three African American pastors, one in Baton Rouge and two in New Orleans. The question we were tasked with answering was - How have the last two weeks affected your congregation? One pastor said that her congregation was founded in 1904 and has a long, well-archived history of civil rights activism. Another said that his urban congregation was founded on social justice, on working with the local community to address their needs. Both of these pastors’ congregations were in pain but had done the work of protest before; this week wasn’t new for them at all. I was hesitant and humbled to say that, beyond fundraisers and donation drives, beyond our synagogue’s long history of helping Jewish community members in need, I don’t know much about Agudath Achim’s history with acting towards social change in our wider community.. There are so many at Agudath Achim who donate, who create, who lobby, who act as individuals, and yet, we as a community have not yet made such action part of our identity. When I sheepishly admitted that my main answer to how we were reacting was “I don’t know,” the pastors in the room gave me suggestions for how to proceed with compassion and courage.
Personally, I struggle with talking about action from the bimah. I know that politics do not belong in this space, and at the same time, I believe that certain ideas do not belong in the realm of politics, but rather, in the realm of morality and belief. We, the Jewish people, are told in the Torah to live each and every day as if we had been slaves in Egypt, as if we had experienced unthinkable horror. We, the Jewish people tell each other to “Never Forget,” when we speak about the Shoah (the Holocaust). When we remember our slavery in Egypt and the different shades of persecution we have withstood for thousands of years, it is not just for the sake of remembering what we have gone through to preserve our Judaism. It is not just for the sake of reminding ourselves that anti-Semitism is a constant threat. Remembering our slavery in Egypt, our millennia of persecution, reminds us of the hatred and disrespect that humans can have for one another and the terror of being on the receiving end of that disrespect.
We know, from our history, what it is like to be treated as other by the police. We know from our history, how microaggressions, how institutionalized differences in standards, based on someone’s heritage, can grow from pesky to life-threatening. From speaking with those of you who grew up in this area and in others, some of us even know first-hand what it is to be terrorized by neighbors for our ancestry. If anyone should trust when a community asks for safety, when a community cries out that they are being treated with inequity, we should be right there with them.
When the Torah commands in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:20) that command is surrounded by specific laws regarding due process of law. The Torah speaks of judges and witnesses, of the diligent research required before any act of violence takes place against a suspect. The Torah speaks in detail of the equity required in judging people of different stations in life, and the Mishnah tells us that all are judged l’khaf z’khut, with an eye towards merit (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Practically, what that looks like must be a criminal justice system with transparency and with compassion, one that educates its officers enough to know that a single gunshot or chokehold can tear not just a family, but an entire society, apart.
I can stand here and quote Torah at you. I can shout from rooftops about how similar we all are, but the reality is that most of us in this congregation have not experienced the watching eye of a police officer in the same way as our African American neighbors. Most of us have not been questioned with fear and skepticism in the same way as our Black friends by the local neighborhood watch. In order to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) we must know our neighbor better. And that is where I believe our action needs to start. Right now, Together Louisiana is organizing partnerships between congregations with similar sizes but different demographics, so that we can better understand the issues affecting each other. I hope that we at Agudath Achim will agree to be part of one of those partnerships. In such a partnership, I hope that we can learn the needs of our neighbors and brainstorm next steps to take as a congregation who know we are obligated to do better.
Of course, before these partnerships start up, I can say that I need to do a better job of asking those people of color within our own congregation what we can be doing to support you, your family, and others within our community. And if you don’t want to answer - whether you’re tired or don’t want to speak for countless others or any other reason - that’s okay too.
For now, let us each do what we can to fulfill our obligation for never standing by the blood of our neighbor. Let us donate, march, share what we believe, and simply get to know some of the people who live on our street. Then, once we’ve done our share at home, let us come back together as Agudath Achim to tackle the nitty gritty inherent in any road towards love.
In my conversation with these pastors yesterday afternoon, one reminded me of the incredible civil rights history our wider Jewish community has to present. She told me to start searching there. The other remarked, “You know, I also need to do better to reach out to my local Jewish community, to find out more about them! Thank you for reminding me!” These conversations with other communities are not just for the sake of us finding out the needs of our neighbor; they are also for the sake of our neighbor learning about our needs, our beliefs, our struggles, our joys, and most importantly, our areas of common ground. Shabbat Shalom.