Shavuot 2020 Yizkor: Racism, compassion, and Torah

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
May 30, 2020

Each week I write my sermon, then I deliver words based upon them.  The sermon I wrote is below.  The sermon I delivered can be viewed through the link at the bottom of this page.

Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson who earned her BA and MA from Brandeis and her doctorate from Harvard founded an organization (DEEP) to educate people and break the chain of systemic racism. She wrote:

We can't go jogging (#AmaudArbery)
We cant relax in the comfort of our own homes (#BothemJean and #AtianaJefferson).
We cant ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride)
We cant have a cell phone (#Stephon Clark)
We cant breathe (#EricGardner and #GeorgeFloyd)...
We cant go to church (#Charleston9).
We cant walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin)
We cant hold a hair brush while leaving a party (#SeanBell)
We cant party on New Years (#OscarGrant)
We can't get to a new job or get a normal parking ticket (#SandraBland)
We cant have a gun license (#philandocastille)
We cant shop at Walmart (#Coreyjones)
WE ARE TIRED OF HASHTAGS!...... #dosomething #coconspirators

If you've never heard me say, Ill say it again. I dont want allies. I NEED CO-CONSPIRATORS. Co-conspirator by definition: You understand the historical and systemic implications of race and oppression. You are able to own your privilege and leverage it to say the things that I cant, disrupt in the spaces where I still have no "validity" to enter, and agitate the hell out of conversations with white community where I still am deemed "radical." You are okay sitting in discomfort. Co-conspirators know that the absence of something is still a something. Doing nothing makes you complicit. Co-Conspirators are not complicit; they move with intention. Disruptive intention! Co-conspirators know that a pause is an interruption; a momentary lapse in time. Co-conspirators disrupt. A disruption is an end to; the elimination/removal. They are partnering to end systems of oppression , NOT TO PAUSE THEM OR INTERRUPT like “allies.”

When I look at our Torah, I see a Torah of co-conspirators. I see a Torah that demands action against systemic violence. I volunteer for the police department as a chaplain, serving the needs of our community. I am grateful to the men and women who daily serve our community. They work challenging jobs in challenging times. At this moment, they are choosing each day to go potentially into harm’s way, to interact closely with people who may be infected with this dastardly plague.

And yet, over and over in our country, we see people acting in the name of the law committing violence against the bodies of people of color. The two times I have seen the flashing blue lights in my mirror, my concern was did I stop properly at a hidden stop sign or misread a speed limit sign. I did not fear for my well-being. That is not a universal experience. It should be.

Our Torah teaches that it should be. It teaches that we are to judge the rich and poor fairly, that there is one law for the stranger and a member of the tribe.

In our holy Talmud, in Tractate Sukkah 49B, there are two very powerful paragraphs about the nature of Torah. The first we study many Shabbat mornings in our Siddur. From the translation there:

Rabbi Elazar said: whoever does deeds of charity and justice is considered as having filled the world with lovingkindness, as it is written “God loves charity and justice; the earth is filled with Adonai’s lovingkindness” (Ps. 33:5)

Our sage, Rabbi Elazar, is discussing how great a mitzvah, how great a command it is to be a good person, to treat others with respect, and to make sure that people have their basic needs met. These needs are not only physical, but spiritual. As Jews, we are commanded to study Torah, to teach Torah, to live Torah. When we do mitzvot and when we do acts of lovingkindness (gemilut hasadim), we are bringing Gdliness into the world.

Tractate Rosh Hashanah has a discussion about life after death, about what happens to us next. One of the conversations says that after death, we are in a type of purgatory for a year. After 12 months, we either make our way to heaven, to the world to come, or become ashes. From a Jewish perspective, this is one of the reasons we say Kaddish or do mitzvot or study in the name of ones we have lost. By doing good things in their name, we help to bring them into the world to come.

To me, our holy Torah, our holy traditions can be boiled down to love. We are commanded to love our neighbors. Hillel taught that the essence of Torah is not to do what is hateful to us, to others. Love is the start of ALL of our commandments. Whether it is love of others or love of God, every command, even the ones that do not seem so are related to our love of God and God’s love for us.

When we think of our neighbors, love must be our first reaction. Humanity must be our second. Martin Luther King Jr wrote from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

When we think of our loved ones, we think not only of their love, but the ways that we showed love. Whether it was making our beds because our spouse liked the bed made or making a special dinner or seeing a show or travelling because our parents or friends or children loved to do those things. When we do those things without them, we are happy for the memories, but also a little sad that they are not with us.

The same is true of Torah, of the mitzvot. For some of us, we live Jewish lives because of our love for God. Some observant Jews might not really care about the laws of kashrut, but they do them because they love God. I don’t really care about making my bed, but I know that Rebecca is happier if I do!

The Torah teaches that when we show our love for others, when we help others, when we care for others, we are living the values taught by God. We are emulating God. What better way to show respect and love for someone but to follow their examples.

Many children follow their parents in the same way. They become accountants or doctors to follow in their parents footsteps. They make the same foods on holidays and special occasions, because Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah is not the same without Bubbe’s matzo ball soup. By living our lives in the footsteps of the ones we love, in the footsteps of God, we can find great depth, great meaning in our lives. By passing our traditions to our children, we can extend the memory of those that are no longer with us.

Today we stand together to remember, to say Yizkor, to say words that remind us of the ones that we have lost. We remember those who have touched our lives, given birth to us or the ones we love. They have been our partners and friends. They have been our children and our relatives. We are bereft without them, yet we know that by following in their footsteps we can make our lives better. The magic of Yizkor, the magic of Jewish tradition is also the belief that we can better their existence through our actions. By making good choices, doing good deeds, we may believe that we are not only bringing ourselves closer to God, but also the ones whom we have lost. Now that is a powerful thought. In the traditional prayers for Yizkor, there is a line about donating charity in their memory. Through these donations, through good deeds, we continue to uplift their spirits AND our own.

At this moment, I think not only of those who I know personally, but those whose lives were taken from them.

Please open your Yizkor booklets or turn to the Siddur at this time.

My sermon begins at 1:43:30 (one hour and 43 minutes and 30 seconds)


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