פרשת שלח, תש״פ
Parshat Sh'lah, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, June 20th, 2020
Communal Sacrifice for Communal Wrongdoing
In reflection on this Juneteenth, a few of us were speaking earlier today about experiences we had and the injustices we witnessed when we were younger that make us feel ashamed or guilty now. We spoke about how some of us had not thought to look up the history of Juneteenth until this week. For me, I look back on my childhood in a suburb of Los Angeles and see how our community treated Latin American immigrants. We underpaid them for their work because it was so hard for them to find steadily paying jobs. At my high school, the Latino/a kids would sit in an entirely different area at lunch, and I don’t remember seeing any of them in my classes. When I was younger, I thought nothing of it, just as I thought nothing of the reality that there were so few black kids in my school as a result of redlining in the area. As I look back at my childhood in Agoura Hills, even my adulthood in the greater Los Angeles area, I feel a real sense of shame, and I know that a simple feeling of shame won’t fix anything. It is terrifying to think of these guilts in the isolation of my own mind - I cannot conquer the misdeeds of society alone. But that is why, personally, I seek community - not just to help me find joy and fulfillment, but to help me process and act accordingly when I know I have been complicit.
The Torah acknowledges the importance of communal acknowledgement and atonement for communal wrongdoing. When wrongdoing is committed in the eyes of the public, God commands, the entire congregation must bring a hatat offering (Numbers 16:24). Even if only one person committed the crime that others witnessed, even if the individual did not know that she was misguided, the entire community brings that sacrifice. The Torah - God - understands that when a community is complicit, the entire community is responsible. When some are guilty, all must work to earn innocence.
Even today (especially today), communal wrongdoing must undergo communal fixing. We have transgressed the commandments to treat all equally in judgment and not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. We have ignored our country’s legacy of inequities in police violence and sentencing procedures for far too long. We have transgressed the commandment to create a world in which the poor do not exist, ignoring inequities in hiring, health care, and education. Imagine - this vision was offered thousands of years ago, and we still have not fulfilled it!
Together, today, we are able bring the communal sacrifices of speaking out, of voting, and of supporting businesses whose morals we support. We bring these sacrifices in community because we know how hard it is to do it alone. We comfort each other in knowing that we were not the only ones to act wrongly, and we learn from each other how to change. In ancient times, sacrifices were given because they were a big sacrifice. We gave our most expensive animals, the best of our flock. Today, we have to give a little in order to redeem ourselves and our world.
In some situations, the only sacrifice we have to give is our pride. We can rebuke a friend or family member whom we know is well meaning but said something not quite right. Perhaps we sacrifice our money, just like the Israelites did when they didn’t have a year-old calf on hand in Jerusalem - we donate to organizations run by people who know more about the issues that we do. Perhaps we sacrifice our time, looking into the education given by our local school system to make sure that our history education includes fuller stories of women, of African Americans, and of indigenous Americans. And hopefully, we sacrifice our comfort, too, reaching out to people outside the communities we normally seek for friendship and business.
Today, with mask distribution, we began the process of widening our community to achieve a greater sense of atonement. We met a candidate for US Senator who can teach us about what issues to follow and how to vote our ideals. This afternoon, I spoke with a pastor who specializes in addiction counseling; he can help us learn how to address the mental health needs of our Shreveport community. We certainly cannot reverse the pain and loss that have happened as a result of the inequities in our society, and we certainly cannot fix everything in our lifetime, but as Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot (2:15), “The day is short, and the work is long. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We cannot finish it all, but together, we can certainly make a dent in addressing the misdeeds of our ancestors, as they did with theirs. By learning together, by arguing, and by lifting each other up, we can bring that communal sacrifice and earn the atonement our society needs. Shabbat Shalom.