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Yizkor, Shavu’ot and Our Burning Cities

June 1, 2020

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

Dear friends,

We stand in horror at the death of George Floyd, who was killed in a manner in which, our Sages teach in the laws of Kashruth, even an animal may not be killed for food. We pray for the consolation of his daughters, girlfriend and other family and friends. And we demand that justice be served on the all the officers who committed or abetted his murder.

On Shavuot, at Yizkor services, I discussed the simple blessing we offer for our departed:

“May G-d remember the soul of _______________ who has gone to his/her/their eternal home. In the memory of their life, I pledge these acts of tzedaka, Through such deeds, may their lives be bound up in ours.”

Why the emphasis on tzedaka, acts of social righteousness?

In Proverbs 10:2, King Solomon teaches, “tzedaka ta’tzil mimavettzedaka saves one from death.”

Surely, we know that even very righteous and generous people eventually die. What does Solomon’s teaching then mean?

First, engaging in social righteousness joins us and our departed in a sacred partnership. On their behalf, and often inspired by their example, we do what they now cannot and so increase our z’chut/merit and theirs.

Second, actively practicing social righteousness is an antidote to the powerlessness often caused by traumatic loss. Indeed, many scholars believe that our current Yizkor service was formed in the Rhineland, in the 11th Century, following the massacre of Jews there by armies of Crusaders.

Commitment to engage in tzedaka combats the fear and despair that death, especially mass suffering, mass death, mass discrimination can engender.

So, Yizkor was intended not just for somber reflection on our departed, but also to inspire an active, positive response in this world. It reminds us that in the face of institutionalized prejudice and death, we have strength and responsibility.

Today, we respond to two pandemics.

Covid-19 has overwhelmed our hospitals, morgues and cemeteries and has taken over 100,000 precious American lives, with 260,000 other sacred lives, all over the planet.

The other pandemic is that of racism and poverty which has now taken our country past the boiling point.

We have to remain nonviolent. But nonviolence, as Dr. Martin Luther King, zichrono livracha, relentlessly taught, does not mean non-action.

At Yizkor we recall the values of our ancestors. For Jews, this has meant the paramount sanctity of human life. The Hebrew word for even one human life, “chayim”, is curiously plural, so that no one will conclude that one life is more valuable than another. Different treatment of blacks and whites, by police or anyone else, is not only unjust and evil, but attacks the fundamental religious understanding that we are together children of a loving G-d.

I believe that the great majority of police officers are decent and fair. I am proud of my personal friendship with officers in our local precinct, as well as the institutional relationship of our Synagogue and the precinct. But nationwide a stunningly high percentage of the men and women who are humiliated and assaulted by police are of color. Both our dedicated police officers and people in communities of color are caught in old, entrenched and sick systems. These in turn reflect much deeper problems of poverty and privilege, and of indifference and despair.

I am ashamed of my country for its systemic racism, but I also know from the laws of teshuva/repentance that shame can be a strong stimulus, indeed generally a necessary first step towards sincere and effective change. The critical element is what we (in this case, whites) choose to do with the shame and guilt. We may decide to keep the victims out of sight or otherwise cultivate indifference, or limit our response to pious prayers in Synagogue/ Church/ Mosque, or point to progress already made, or hand off responsibility to “the courts” or “our elected officials” without personal participation.

Or, we can deepen our own involvement.

Now is the time to become closer with others in our community, across lines of faith and race, in order to better understand the personal, social and economic impact of racial injustice and inequality. Just before the coronavirus pandemic, and under the leadership of Rabbi Lieber, we had already begun this teshuva by organizing our teens and adults to participate in anti-racism workshops with other Synagogues. We will continue to work with other faith communities, of all races, as well as with local law enforcement, to help shape better understanding and improve safety for all.

We live in a moment of emergency. But we are also given now, as we were in the 1950’s and 1960’s, spiritual opportunity. So, I would like to conclude with a brief selection from an address by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, zichrono livracha, to the Conference on Religion and Race in 1963:

“There are those who maintain that the situation is too grave for us to do much about it, that what we might do would be ‘too little and too late’ and that the most practical thing we can do is to weep and to despair. If such a message is true, then G-d has spoken in vain.

Such a message is (also) four thousand years too late. It is good Babylonian theology. In the meantime, certain things have happened: Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, the Christian Gospel.

History is not all darkness. It is good that Moses did not study theology under the teachings of that message. Otherwise, I would still be in Egypt building pyramids. Abraham was all alone in the world of paganism. The difficulties he faced were hardly less grave than ours.

…What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals. What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice… The greatest heresy is despair, despair of men’s power for goodness, men’s power for love.”

B’virkat Shalom, with blessings of peace, safety and health for you and your families.

Rabbi Weintraub

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