When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, they were described as being מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, as suffering of “shortness of breath” (Shemoth 6:9). Rashi adds: “whoever is troubled (mayzar), his spirit (ruach) and his breathing are short (kazra), and he cannot breathe a long breath.” Today we are troubled. Our breath is short. George Floyd was robbed of his breath. So we take a stand. We use our breath to seek justice, healing, and peace.
This week I, and others from our synagogue, participated in a socially distanced rally, a somber vigil, where each household stood together at our local community monument for 20 minutes at a time. I arrived with my tiny sign that read: “We are all created in the image of God” and “Enough.” People drove by and honked in solidarity until that red car arrived. The driver sped around the circle several times spewing profanities and yelling, “…because of you, they are going to burn down my home; get out of here!” We immediately called the police department who agreed to deploy a car to watch over our peaceful vigil.
Is it possible to peacefully protest racism without fanning the flames of violence? Can we support our law enforcement without condoning the terrible actions of a few policemen? I believe we must hold both realities. We must stand up against racism peacefully and safely. And we can recognize that law enforcement is doing their job.
Can we support our law enforcement without condoning the terrible actions of a few policemen? I believe we must hold both realities. We must stand up against racism peacefully and safely. And we can recognize that law enforcement is doing their job.
Growing up in aparthied South Africa shaped my worldview. I was taught to fear the police — the white nationalist Afrikaners, and was given the message that black people were second-class citizens. Neither extreme sat well with me. I remember once being driven by another family to a bar mitzvah. We got lost, and we found ourselves in the shantytown of Alexandria, a poor and dilapidated township where black people were forced to live (the white suburbs of Johannesburg were filled with our black workers, maids and gardeners, but forbidden from living amongst the “whites.” My friend’s father, in his large Mercedes Benz, shouted for us kids to duck get down in the backseat. We were in uncharted territory and he clearly thought that we were in danger. I did, but managed to peer out the window and saw faces of poverty, distress and hunger. I did not yet understand fear. I saw first hand how racism causes fear rooted in an irrational history.
We were in uncharted territory and he clearly thought that we were in danger. I did, but managed to peer out the window and saw faces of poverty, distress and hunger. I did not yet understand fear. I saw first hand how racism causes fear rooted in an irrational history.
Soon after that incident, we immigrated to America. Just a few months after our arrival, I watched my family cry tears of joy as Nelson Mandella walked out of prison. He became the global symbol of freedom and justice. Of course, South Africa’s history, even after the fall of apartheid, was not that simple. Years of violence ensued. Police were cast as perpetrators, synonymous with brutality and chaos.
I dared to imagine that America would be the land of hope and opportunity, of tolerance and equity. These are the values that I so desperately sought out to reshape my innocent worldview, refusing to accept an ethos shaped by fear. All these years later, as I listen to the rhetoric over the past few days, I remain dumbfounded that I am still living in a world battling that ugly fear.
The days ahead will continue to be fraught. There will still be people spewing profanities and making racist comments. There will be more people criticizing the police. In this time of polarization we have to first and foremost look inside of ourselves and identify our own racist or anti law enforcement biases. We must ask what are we afraid of? What and who in our lives have informed these notions? Who can we learn from to expand our visceral reactions to be more measured and thoughtful? Once we have examined our own thoughts, we must move to action. What can we do as individuals? What can we inspire our community to do? If we have the luxury of power, how can we wield our resources to help? Can we talk in a quiet way that will provide comfort to those who need it, while still speaking truth to power loudly and courageously.
So, I take a deep breath, and in doing so challenge myself and those around me to emerge from our מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, our shortness of breath, and awaken a spirit, a רוּחַ deep within ourselves that will be a source of justice, courage, peace and healing that our world so desperately needs right now.
As I think about the road ahead, of all of the hard work of self examination, finding my voice for justice, and letting go of fear, my breath catches in my throat. So, I take a deep breath, and in doing so challenge myself and those around me to emerge from our מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, our shortness of breath, and awaken a spirit, a רוּחַ deep within ourselves that will be a source of justice, courage, peace and healing that our world so desperately needs right now.
Torat Chayim, a rabbinical association of Orthodox rabbis “committed to fostering a more pluralistic and progressive future,” published in a statement signed by over 60 rabbis, laid forth several concrete suggestions for consideration:
We, the signers of this statement, commit ourselves to root out racism in our own communities in the following ways:
– We will work to fight the racism found in the Orthodox communities we lead. We will show zero tolerance for racist stereotypes and outright bigotry. Change has to start with our own communities, synagogues, and schools.
– We agree to give sermons and divrei Torah about racism, especially structural racism, in the immediate weeks to come and across the year, raising the issues that arise nationally as well as in our own communities.
– We will stand with our fellow citizens of color and listen to what they are asking from us, not just in today’s crisis, but will reach out and build relationships that will continue as we do the work to make our nation a more just and equitable place for all. We will seek out organizations like The Poor People’s Campaign, that make clear the connections between poverty, racism, and militarism in policing and that also put people of color and other impacted people in leadership.
– We will act in concert with the needs expressed by communities of color: Specifically, to contact Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman to arrest and charge all four officers involved in George Floyd’s death and sign the “Run with Ahmaud” petition to get justice for Ahmaud Arbery.
– We commit to putting money towards fighting structural racism.
– We will talk about why too many interactions with police are terrifying to Black Americans and are too often legitimately dangerous (an experience that white communities today largely do not share).
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the co-founder and president of Maharat, and is the Rabba of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Bayit.
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