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things are not ok

2020-06-01 12:55:52 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

I had been asking myself for months if this pandemic would finally do something to break us.  Even in our forced separation and through the challenges we have encountered, we were surviving. Our lives were thrown into disarray, but most of us could still stay comfortable and safe as long as we followed the rules and kept ourselves busy.  Nothing was easy, but we were doing ok. 

And then came the video.  And things just didn’t seem as clear anymore.

Didn’t someone tell that police officer who pressed his knee against the neck of George Floyd that we are all in this together?  Didn’t he and the other officers who stood by know that we were living in different times, where we are all part of a global fight against a virus more powerful than us?  That we will only survive by acts of compassion and love?  Didn’t he know that we have enough pain and suffering in our world, and that we simply couldn’t take any more?

Clearly this police officer, like so many other people, was holding on to something much deeper and sadly much more powerful than any acts of hope and healing that we could muster.  This pandemic has only been around for a few months, but the racism and abject horror that we saw in that video has been around for generations.

This is what I think stung so much about what happened in Minneapolis last week.  The world was falling apart, but we thought maybe we were on track to do something right.  Forced into lines outside grocery stories, and not even allowed to hug a friend--we had no choice but to see the brokenness of our world, the suffering of others right in front of us each and every day.  Even in the midst of this, we were pushing towards something better.  As a recent New Yorker article put it, the Coronavirus was "Rewriting our Imaginations” and was allowing us to finally see the possible in what was once impossible. We were finally making real headway on environmental issues, and moving towards some hint of economic justice.  We were pushing through, and maybe, just maybe, headed towards something better.  

And then came the video.

Maybe our world was not filled with the healing and hope which was working so hard to overcome the sadness and suffering.  The rainbows and balcony concerts were keeping us strong, but their messages of hope simply were not strong enough to spread to those who were already too oppressed to receive them.

For so many black people, already dying in higher numbers from the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd was the final straw.  It was being said loud and clear: “This world doesn't care about us, and there is systematic racism that is still strong and real in our world."  (Contrary to what Premier Legault said in his press conference yesterday, while it could be argued that Canada has done better, our country, and Quebec in particular are not free from blame.)

All of this is a very important reminder that we have privilege, and that we in the Jewish community have to do more than just have conversations about tikkun olam and “social justice”.  Events like the murder of George Floyd need to inspire us to stand up and fight.

We do a lot of talk in the Jewish community about the growing threat of antisemitism, but this is nothing compared to what is continuing to happen to black people on the streets of North America.  We hate to admit it, but for many of us, we can pass, and usually do pass, as white. (This is not to ignore of course the very real diversity of our Jewish community, which is made up of people from all backgrounds and colors).  Too many of us benefit from white privilege.  And it is precisely because of the place that we have in society, that we are obligated to do more.

I do think that the energy of the protests we have seen the past few days comes in part from the delicate place that we are in as a society living through this pandemic.  We have been sitting at home separated from each other and the very social systems that have kept us together for so long.  During this time we have been forced to examine our world, and we are seeing the deep brokenness of our society and all of the problems we have conveniently ignored.  

As hundreds of thousands of people have died from Covid19, we see that the roots of these deaths are not just from a microscopic virus.  They are uncomfortably as much the fault of a society that created a perfect moment for a pandemic by ignoring the calls for change that were right in front of us. 

Yes, it is all connected.  Economic inequality, unequal access to healthcare, environmental destruction, racism, animal exploitation, misused political power.  Before our world fell apart, we could live as if these weren’t our issues, and we could find a way to stay separated from this reality just enough to show we care but above all, stay comfortable.  Now months in, with no end in sight, I think the lesson is clear.  It is all our fight, and there is no settling in if we want to see a future.  

Now is the time to fight for so much, but let’s focus on the matter at hand.  Stand up and fight to end systematic racism, and speak truths that will make people uncomfortable.  Do it because we do know what it is like to be oppressed, but do it also knowing that so many of us also have privilege.  Speak of it when you rise up and when you lie down, and fill your homes and fill the streets with this deep activism that becomes part of who you are and all that you do.

We have to remember, of all of the commandments of the Torah, one of the most important is that we are all creation b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image, equal in a way that crosses all bounds of skin color and difference.

This week we fight to end racism, and we hope that there is real change that makes its way into the deepest corners of government and society.  Use your anger, and use what you know about being different to stand up and fight.  Keep the fight going, but also don’t give up on all else that matters

Why do this now?  Because we should not be allowed to be comfortable when we encounter so much pain in front of us.  As we are told in the Talmud:

“When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul.” (Talmud Taanit 11a)

Because here's what we know.  Unlike even a few months ago, when the protests of the past few days quiet down, we will not be back to normal.  We will still be in a pandemic, and we will still be in a very broken world. And we know we still have a lot of work to do.




Thu, September 24 2020 6 Tishrei 5781