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Choice Leftovers: Re’eh and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

I cannot even remember the last time I played pick up basketball. Regardless, I still have that fear of not getting picked to play. We all know the feeling of not getting chosen, but can we identify the feeling of being chosen?

I was thinking about this idea this week while reading Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people.

Deuteronomy 14:2

In Judaism, “chosenness” is the belief that the Jews, via descent from the ancient Israelites, are the chosen people, i.e., chosen to be in a covenant with God. We have been chosen by God for a purpose, but what purpose? Sometimes this choice is seen as charging the Jewish people with a specific mission—to be a light unto the nations, and to exemplify the covenant with God.

While the concept of “choseness” implies ethnic supremacy, this idea does not play out well for us over history. More often than not we have ended up on the short end of the stick suffering at the hands of others. If we were chose to suffer, why would anyone want that? I was thinking about this recently while watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. There is some real depth to this movie.

Was Toledo a Real Person? Who Is Ma Rainey's Pianist Based on?

I was particularly struck by one line by Toledo the older musician when he said:

Now, I’m gonna show you how this goes . . . where you just a leftover from history. Everybody come from different places in Africa, right? Come from different tribes and things. Soonawhile they began to make one big stew. You had
the carrots, the peas, and potatoes and whatnot over here. And over there you had the meat, the nuts, the okra, corn … and then you mix it up and let it cook right through to get the flavors flowing together . . . then you got one thing. You got a stew. Now you take and eat the stew. You take and make your history with that stew. All right. Now it’s over. Your history’s over and you done ate the stew. But you look around and see some carrots over here, some potatoes over there. That stew’s still there. You done made your history and it’s still there. You can’t eat it all. So what you got? You got some leftovers. That’s what it is. You got leftovers and you can’t do nothing with it. You already making you another history. . . cooking you another meal, and you don’t need them leftovers no more. What to do? See, we’s the leftovers. The colored man is the leftovers. Now, what’s the colored man gonna do with himself? That’s what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers. Now, who knows that? You find me a nigger that knows that and I’ll turn any whichaway you want me to. I’ll bend over for you. You ain’t gonna find that. And that’s what the problem is. The problem ain’t with the white man. The white man knows you just a leftover. ‘Cause he the one who done the eating and he know what he done ate. But we don’t know that we been took and made history out of. Done went and filled the white man’s belly and now he’s full and tired and wants you to get out the way and let him be by himself. Now, I know what I’m talking about.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

I would not claim that Jewish history to be the same as African American history, but there is something profound and resonant in this depiction of value and self. Looking at our history I often feel that we are less the Chosen People and more She’arit Yisrael, the remnant of Israel. We are what it left after a long history. I can relate to also being the leftovers of history. I like to think it is still a damn good stew.

The Clarity of Broken Leadership

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we revisit the Golden Calf incident. Moshe is up on the Mountain getting the Ten Commandments from God and when he comes down with the two Tablets he sees that the Israelites had created an idolatrous Golden Calf to worship. First he breaks the Tablets and then he grinds up the Golden Calf. What was so bad about creating this idol? No one got hurt. Also it is noteworthy that Moshe destroys both the Tablets a gift from God and the Golden Calf, but why?

I get that we need to remove the Golden Calf so destruction makes sense. There was something alluring about the idol. While it exist there is a temptation to use it. I do not understand is why Moshe destroyed the Tablets as well. It was a manifestation of the will of a God with whom it was so hard to connect. Can you image spending 40 days straight working on something and than just tossing it in the trash?

In creating the Golden Calf the Israelites proved that they might do anything as a group. Their group-think created a context where many bad things could happen. It would just take one bad egg to act on the spirit of the group and anything was possible. Moshe broke the God-given Tablets to awaken the people of the logical ends of their idolatry. He broke the Tablets to remind them that his lot with with them. While he worked for 40 days to get the Tablets we would work for 40 years for his people. He had to give up his personal accomplishments for the sake of their redemption. Leadership is hard, but clarity of mission will always help us fix that which has been broken.

Romantic Chesed: Tu B’Av and the Caring for the Dead

Tomorrow we celebrate Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is supposed to be the Jewish Valentine’s day. It is a day of love and one of the happiest days of the year. But what are we celebrating? The Gemara shares six historical happy events that happened on this day.  This year one in particular interested me. There we read:

Rav Mattana said: There was an additional salvation on this day, as it was the day that the slain of Beitar were brought to burial, several years after the battle at Beitar (see Gittin 57a). And Rav Mattana said: On the same day that the slain of Beitar were brought to burial, they instituted the blessing: Who is good and does good, at Yavne. Who is good, thanking God that the corpses did not decompose while awaiting burial, and does good, thanking God that they were ultimately brought to burial. ( Ta'ant 31a)

Why would be be so happy that these people would be buried? And it all sounds very morbid. What does that have to do with love?

Interestingly when Yaakov was about to pass away he called Yosef to help him. There we read:

And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Yosef and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your chesed and truth: please do not bury me in Egypt. (Genesis 47:29)

It was important to Yakov that he should be buried in the Promised Land and not in Egypt. Yakov appeals to his chesed– mercy or grace to make this so. In explaining this passage Rashi quotes the midrash and writes:

Chesed and Truth— The chesed shown to the dead is “chesed of truth” (true, disinterested kindness) since one cannot hope for any reward (Genesis Rabbah 76:3).

This could come to explain who burying a dead body is a “chesed of truth”, but what does that have to do with love?

I have been thinking for a while about a famous line in Micah in the Haftarah from Parshat Balak. There we read, “Only to do justice And to love chesed, And to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8). What does God want from us? We need to have the hubris to pursue justice in the world. We also need a corrective to strive to do that modestly. But what does it mean to love chesed?

Chesed is how we treat people who do not have power over you. In a profound way I believe that Judaism has a romantic notion of love for those who do not have power. A dead body has no power. The burial of these bodies on Tu B’Av represents a national expression of this love of chesed.

Sitting Alone: On Tisha B’Av and Covid-19

Today is Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and our subsequent exile from Israel. Through it all Tisha B’Av seems to be a day of isolation. At the start of Eicha we read:

How does the city sit alone, that was full of people! How has she become as a widow! She who was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!  She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Yehudah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her within the straits. (Lamentations 1:1-3)

Jerusalem is alone with none to comfort her. We as a people are in exile. This theme tracks through the course of Eicha and the customs and traditions of Tisha B’Av.

Young boy sitting alone with sad feeling at school. Depressed af

It is noteworthy that this isolation of Tisha B’Av seems almost prescient of the CDC requirement for the social isolation protocols meant to stem the spread of Covid-19 and the newer Delta variant. Above and beyond getting vaccinated following these guidelines is supposed to save us.

This is echoed by Eichah when it reads:

Let him sit alone and keep silence, because God has laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. (Lamentation 3:28-29)

In spending today alone we are supposed to have hope in the future. In following these guidelines we are also supposed to have hope in he future.

Said It Before: Tisha B’Av and Ani V’Ata

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hazon with the vision of the destruction. Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and our subsequent exile from Israel, is Sunday. According to tradition this day was started due to the sin of the twelve spies (Mishnah Taanit 4:6). The Israelites wept over the false report of the ten spies and in turn this day has become a day of weeping and misfortune.

In his amazing book Em HaBanim Semeichah Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal refutes the anti- Zionism of his Satmar Hungarian Orthodox upbringing and beautifully lays out a vision of redemption realized in a Jewish State of Israel. There he writes:

Our mentor, the Ari z”l, revealed to his disciple , Rabbi Chayim Vital z”l , that when one chooses a mitzvah for which a certain tzaddik sacrificed himself, the soul of that tzadikk comes to his aid. The author of Midrash Shmuel once entered the study hall and [the soul of] the Ari HaKadosh stood before him, as is well known. The same is true today. Yehoshua and Calev sacrificed themselves for aliyah. The entire Jewish nation wanted to stone them, but they said, Let us go up (Numbers 13:30). Similarly, if we sacrifice ourselves for aliyah, the souls of Yehoshua and Calev will come to our aid. This is as clear and true as the Torah of Moshe from the Almighty”.( Em HaBanim Semeichah) 

I was thinking about this deep Torah of Rabbi Teichtal when listening to Arik Einstein’s iconic Ani V’Ata. There he sings:

Ani V'Ata -You and I- We will change the world
You and I- then everyone will come
Others have said it before
It does not matter - You and I will change the world. ( Ani V'Ata)

The entire song assumes that two people can change the world. This echoes the words of Margaret Mead when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” But who are the other who have said it before?

Is it possible that the partnership was none other than Yehoshua and Calev. For most of Jewish history we have lamented our having ignored these voices. On one level Einstein is urging us to move past the tragedy of the spies to have hope. On another level he is inviting us to move past the idea of just having hoping for 2000 years. The Modern Jewish State is far from perfect, but it surely not just a dream. Ani V’Ata is a call to action. Will we be like the 10 bad spies or will we answer the call of Tisha B’Av? will you and I move from optimism to activism?

Other post on Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal

Off the Mark, But On Target

Despite only being eleven years old at the time, Yadid decided to fast on Yom Kippur. Being that he was not yet a Bar Mitzvah (13 years old) he had no obligation to do so. We were clear with him that if he ever wanted to eat or drink he should stop fasting. At the end of the break on Yom Kippur we were headed back to synagogue for Mincha. At this point Yadid asked, ” Is it harder for people who do not see themselves to be obligated to keep mitzvot to fast on Yom Kippur? I mean since I know I can eat it makes it even harder for me not to eat.” What is the interplay with our sense of obligation and ability to be accomplished?

Yadid’s question makes me think about  Lech Lecha. There our nation’s journey began with God instructing Avram (soon to become Avraham) to leave his birthplace and set out to start a new people in a new land. He was off to the land of Canaan. What a novel concept? A people collected by common belief as opposed to an accident of birth place. But if we were paying attention to the end of previous Torah portion, we would have seen that the destination for Avram’s travel was not new at all. Terach, Avram’s father, had set out with his family toward the land of Canaan, but never got there. While it seems that Avram was more successful than his father in terms of getting to the land of Canaan, as we see later in the this Torah portion in Avram’s travels to Egypt he was equally unsuccessful as his father in terms of staying in Canaan. How are we to compare the Avram’s divine quest with Terach’s life journey?

In the Gemara we learn that,  “Greater is the one who is commanded and does then the one who is not commanded and does”( Kidushin 31a). This sentiment can be explained with a basic understanding of the human need to combat authority. It  is more meritorious to overcome our need to rebuff authority and comply than to just do something for its own sake. It is interesting to ponder the opposite of this adage. How would you compare one who is commanded and does not comply to the one who is not commanded and does not comply? The first one is testing the limits of authority, but still might be in a relationship with the authority. The later is just not doing anything at all.

Surely Terach’s intentions were good, but we do not know them. At first Avram is successful in following God’s direction to go to the land of Canaan, but soon after he gets there he does not stay. But still he aspires to go and does eventually comply and settle in the land of Canaan. In many ways we are all still beneficiaries of this aspiration and this relationship. Beyond the scope of going to Israel, we all fail to fulfill God’s commandments, but with clear expectations it is possible for us to try again and succeed.

I was reminded of Yadid’s question again when reading Matot-Massei, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read about the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and  half of Manasseh asking for the lands east of the Jordan as their portion in the Promised Land, these being prime pastureland for their cattle. Moshe is initially angered by the request, but subsequently agrees on the condition that they first join, and lead, in Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan. Is this a success or failure?

As the story goes there once was a prince who becomes a master archer. The prince excels to such a point that he believes he’s the finest archer in the world. On his journey homeward, the prince stops in a small town to get something to drink. Across from the tavern, the prince sees a barn with painted targets along the entire side of the barn. And, there is a single arrow, dead center in every target on the barn. How could such a master archer be living in this small town? Finally, the prince sees this young boy and asks him. “It was me,” says the boy. “Show me,” demands the prince. They stand. The boy takes aim. The boy hits the side of the barn, far away from any of the targets. Then, the boy runs into the barn. He emerges with a brush and a can of paint. He paints a solid circle around the arrow he has just shot, then two more circles to form a target. The boy says, “That’s how I do it. First, I shoot the arrow, and then I paint the target.” 

A Young Assistant To The King Paints Bullseyes Drawing by Charlie Hankin

We all want to be successful and still we are all prone to miss the mark. It is meaningless to claim success by painting the target. Our shared success and accomplishment is stipulated by clearly stating shared goals from the start. In this case even when we miss the target we can support each other in eventually or in other ways hitting the target. Even though Moshe was initially angered by their request this story of Reuben, Gad, and  half of Manasseh was a success.

 Avram and the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and  half of Manasseh are successful even with different results because their commitment is clear, known, and shared. Yadid’s wisdom was in expressing the difficulty of accomplishing goals when we do not share a common understanding of commitment. As my friend Diana Bloom always says, ” People do not fail, systems fail.” In our lives we ask, do we have the systems of accountability in place to make sure we hit the mark?

A Very Old Tale: Balak, Anti-Semitism, and Education

As Charles Dickens famously wrote

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. (A Tale of Two Cities)

This seems like an apt description of our times today as well. It is confusing. Which narrative is it any way? Are things getting better or worse? Are we as a society advancing or regressing? Is the long arc of history bending toward justice or is the world filling like a cesspool with hate? The new Pew report came out recently. The rate of Inter-marriage is still really high AND the rate of anti-Semitism is way up. It is dizzying. Does the world want to marry or kill us?

Recently I found myself inundated with calls from people wanting to combat this new wave of anti-Semitism. They seemed to be screaming that this has got to be priority number one. Yes this is important, but is it urgent?

I was thinking about this week when reading Balak, this week’s Torah portion. Balak, the king of Moab recruits the prophet Balaam for the purpose of cursing the migrating Israelite community. As the story goes Balaam does not curse them, but instead blesses the people. It is interesting that we just accept and assume it is normal for Balak to want to curse the Israelites. We have always been perceived of as the other. Here we are migrants. In Egypt we were a potential threat to Pharaoh’s power. To Amalek and then with Haman, we were weak, vulnerable, and an easy target. Anti-Semitism is clearly not a new phenomenon.

So it is important to confront Anti-Semitism, but I think this misses the point of the Parshat Balak. Prioritizing teaching how we have been and are hated is off base. I understand that it might be seen as educational expedient, but I am less interested in communicating to another generation how Jews died, than how we lived. While it take less time it also say that being Jewish is a reaction to hate and not a proactive activity of love. We have done a great job communicating how we have been cursed, how are we doing telling another generation about the blessings of living a Jewish life? When it comes to Jewish education we have spent too much of our sacred limited time educating our youth about Anti-Semitism. Yes, they know they are coming for us, but I am afraid that with little else to keep them there when the haters come the next generation will have long ago left the city.

Juneteenth: When We Got the Message

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation which is immutable and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this on Thursday when President Joe Biden signed into law legislation establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a US federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and becomes at least the eleventh federal holiday recognized by the US federal government. The US Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday today on Friday since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Only a handful of states currently observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday. (CNN)

17 Ideas for Teaching Juneteenth in the Classroom - WeAreTeachers

While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 156 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. We can be happy that Juneteenth is a federal holiday and know that there still so much work to be done. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? what do we need to do to reform our police force that targets people of color? We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This new occasion of Juneteenth reminds us that the revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

-last year’s post on Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

Some great sources on the day I got from my colleague Rabbi Stacy Rigler:





Summer Harvest: On the Joy We Need

Many of us have been waiting for summer to start for a long time. But, when does summer start? Technically June 20th is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but that does not seem to capture it. We look forward to the summer as time to congregate and mingle outdoors after being isolated all winter. However, we have been shut-in for a lot longer than one season, and thirst for a world of human connection post-pandemic. When will summer begin? 

For some it was finishing that last test or final in school. With this, we get to close the books on that wacky zoomed-out academic year of 2020-2021. For others it is packing for camp. Ah- the joy of putting nametags on clothing that might never return home. Personally, for many years of my life, summer began when I saw the little red schoolhouse on the way up to camp. For many campers and staff members, summer does not really start until they get off that bus or get out of their car and find themselves running across a field to embrace that friend they have not seen in 11 (or in this case 22 or 23) months. 

Still there is an argument that summer does not really start until that first Shabbat at camp. Everyone shows up as their best and cleanest self. We feel special and unique and lose ourselves in a sea of Shabbat whites. Amidst this calm, we take a moment to take a picture with people we love or pause to smell the fragrance of freshly cut grass. Or maybe it is Shabbat services by a lake or in the woods. And who can deny the inviting waft of chicken soup as we enter the dining hall. 

Each of these moments are surely special, worthy of note, and are reasonable markers for the start of summer. And still, not the experience I have been yearning for. For me, this summer will start when the camp comes together after the first Shabbat dinner to sing Shir HaMaalot (Psalm 126) before Birkat HaMazon, grace after the meal. Weaving their voices together in devotion as one sacred community, blurring of time and space. In this, the community will step beyond the two dimensional world of zoom and into a joyful, uplifting celebration of multidimensional connection to one another, to Jewish tradition, to holiness.

Pausing to reflect on the words, we hear a spectacular expression of gratitude in Shir HaMaalot:

Hazorim B’dima Yiktzoru B’rinah- They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves. (Psalm 126)

reap the wheat 2011 - YouTube

While our experiences of events have varied greatly, over the last 16 months we have all been dealing with a lot. We have had to contend with the health, safety, and social impact of this global pandemic. We have been confronted with the harsh realities of systemic racism and violence. We have been enmeshed in a painful domestic political process. Recently we had a war between Gaza and Israel. And we have endured a huge spike in antisemitism. What else did they pack with them in their bags?

Over the last 16 months, we have sowed many seeds in tears of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and anxiety. We have pushed off or canceled many social engagements. Can you imagine the joy of a group of young Jewish people safe, secure, and away from their parents’ homes singing together in community? 16 months of tears and 22 or 23 months of yearning transformed into unlimited joy. This moment will mark a transition from sorrow to joy, from scarcity to abundance, and from the long long winter of COVID to the summer of what will be next. We will reap joy from the fertile ground of our understanding of sadness. The things we took for granted now are a source of profound happiness. It will be a moment when we can bask in the simple pleasure of each other’s presence and the community can reflect on the power of being together IRL. It is not that after this moment we will no longer have any medical, natural, political, or social problems, but this will close one difficult season and open us to another. For me this experience of the communal singing of Shir HaMaalot will lift us up because it is that song of joy. This summer we will harvest the joy that we so desperately need. 

And just like that, summer will begin.

For a window into the joy that this summer brings, follow your local camps and Foundation for Jewish Camp (@JewishCamp) on social media.

-reposted from eJewishphilanthropy

What We Mean When We Say Blue Lives Matter

The other day I was walking with my sons and we saw Blue Lives Matter flag. What does this really mean?

Blue Lives Matter is a countermovement in the United States advocating that those who are prosecuted and convicted of killing law enforcement officers should be sentenced under hate crime statutes. It was started in response to Black Lives Matter after the homicides of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn, New York on December 20, 2014. Criticized by the ACLU and others, the movement inspired a state law in Louisiana that made it a hate crime to target police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical service personnel. This law has been heavily criticized for extending hate crime law protections outside of characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, to include career choice. Also, evidence that violence against police officers is decreasing has been used to call into question the motivations for the law.

This movement for Blue Lives matter is clearly being done in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the lives of all matter and those who serve as well, it ignores the core issues which is that Black identity and history is constantly under threat of erasure. Police officers do not face the threat of not mattering. Police officers are typically respected and honored in communities while African Americans in urban areas are suspected of criminality. This Blue Lives Matter movement also intentionally or unintentionally supporting a system of discriminatory policing and racial profiling.

There is no excuse for one person to hurt, let alone kill, another, but I have to say that I am particularly outraged by police violence. Dealing with difficult situations is their job. I am not saying that it is an easy job, but that is what they signed up for when joining the police force and taking an oath to serve and protect. Mind you, if it was not for cell phones we would not even know about these situations. It is only recently that so many citizens have devices to keep an eye on the police who were supposed to be keeping an eye on us. Its makes you think about how deep the history of police violence has been.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race is a problem. Seeing how this is compounded by issues about policing makes fixing these problems intractable. Confronting or avoiding the history of racism in this country seems to be played out in the tired volley between “Black Lives Matter”, “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter”. One need not be against police to want to see them do their jobs and make sure that black and brown men and women are not being targeted.

Following the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol many have called Blue Lives Matter hypocritical as many in the mob were showing support for Blue Lives Matter, yet they assaulted capitol police officers. One African-American Capitol Police Officer even described being beaten with a blue lives matter flag. This has led some to argue that Blue Lives Matter is more about suppressing minorities than supporting law enforcement.

I was thinking about the Blue Lives Matter movement when reading Korach, this week’s Torah portion. In his efforts to get power for himself he claims, “All the community is holy (kulam kedoshim)” (Num. 16:3). Rashi relates the following midrash in order to explain the nature of Korah’s attack:

What did Korah do? He arose and assembled 250 men who were fit to be the heads of the Sanhedrin . . . and he dressed them in four-cornered garments (tallit) made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moshe and said to him: “Does a four-cornered garment made entirely of blue wool require fringes (tzitzit) or is it exempt?” Moshe said to them: “It does require tzitzit.” They began to laugh at him: “Is it possible that a tallit made of some other material and then one string of blue makes the tallit ritually fit and, yet, this tallit which is made entirely of blue is not already ritually fit?!”(Tanchuma Korach)

On the surface Korach is arguing that everyone should share power because they are all equal. While his words are noble, his actions are not. In reality he shows up with his posse to demand power for himself. Like Korach, when people say “All Lives Matter” their language of equality is but a thin veil. While Korach was using the blue of the Tzitzit to get power for himself, people who say “Blue Lives Matter” are trying to preserve a racist status quo and keep power in the hands of a system working against the interest of black and brown people. If that was not the case the “All Lives Matter Movement” would be leading the protests against the police. Were not all of the Black people killed by the police in America also people? Did their lives not matter?

I cannot imagine that the people who say “Blue Lives Matter” actually think that they are racists. I am sure they are just concerned for the lives of people in the police force. But as my son said, no one hates the firemen. Everyone knows that they are their for our safety. The fact that we cannot say that about the police is the issue. It is too easy for us all to point our fingers at the bad apples in the police force or the leaders like Korach’s who overtly misuse their power. What is our responsibility?

If we do nothing to dismantle the system of oppression we are part of the problem. As a white person I must accept my responsibility that other people are being hurt to maintain a status quo to support my life. So lets just say “Black Lives Matter”. It does not mean that their lives are the only things that matter, but it gives voice to the fact that we need to change our racist system. I do believe that words matter too, but in the end we will be judged on our actions. Sadly I have been writing the same blog post on Korach since 2016. When will be learn? Let’s choose to be on the right side of history. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole like Korach.

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