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Healing High Holy Days

We Cannot Breathe Until All People Can Breathe

As Yom Kippur approaches, Rabbi Dr. Nadia Siritsky reflects upon the verdict of the police who killed Breonna Taylor and our complicity as a nation.

I have lived in Louisville, Kentucky for over ten years, working on countless projects with the mayor’s office, the Louisville Metro Police Department, and even the FBI, to try to bring healing, justice, and peace to this city. It is therefore with profound sadness, horror, rage, and disgust that I watch what is unfolding in this “city of possibility,” that crowned itself as “compassionate.”

My current work in Louisville—as Director for Program Development with Interfaith Paths to Peace—has led me to support the interfaith peace-making and justice-seeking efforts in this city. Clergy of all faiths have been intervening to de-escalate tensions between police and protesters, often inserting themselves between them to protect their right to peacefully demonstrate.

What small shreds of hope we still had were crushed by the announcement of the Attorney General that no charges would be made against the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor. The double standard of the law is glaring, and the city is grieving. Because of the forced curfew, those grieving are being arrested for exercising their right to protest because of a curfew that is imposed to perpetuate the stereotype that people of color are dangerous, when the last several months have demonstrated that they were peaceful and supported by clergy from across the community. 

Squelched grief has become a ticket to a non-socially isolated jail and fines that perpetuate debt and social inequality. It is just too overwhelming to see the glaring contrast between the ease with which a protester, clergy or lay, can be arrested and the inability to indict a police officer that turns off his camera, falsifies documents, and shoots a woman dead in her home for just sleeping.

And so, here we are, approaching Yom Kippur, reflecting upon our sins and the need to atone—our rabbis teach that we should confess our sins in the plural because even if not all committed the crime, all are guilty for not trying to stop it—and so it is. We confess—ashamnu. We have sinned.

We sin as a nation when we call ourselves a democracy but maintain an electoral college that was created to perpetuate slavery and the belief that people of color should not have the same voting power as white people.

We sin as a nation when we continue to enslave people of color… when this nation continues to target them and imprison them so that they can work without pay to fuel the profits of our privatized prison system and the corporations that derive profit thanks to the slavery amendment of our constitution.

We participate in the sin of slavery every time we buy something from any of the countless companies that rely upon unpaid prison labor.

Today, in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we collectively confess our sins: the sins of this nation, for each of us who vote and pay taxes in this country and in this city, each of us are responsible for what is happening.

And today we affirm that we all share responsibility for our current reality—and as clergy we decry our continued complicity with these sins. And today, we join our brothers and sisters of all faiths, to publicly confess these sins and to reclaim the prophetic voice that calls upon us all to atone, make amends, and work for justice, peace, reconciliation, and a new start where all human beings are recognized as created in the Divine Image.

As we approach Yom Kippur, who amongst us can say that we have not sinned? 

Each of us has contributed in some way to the rapidly growing weight of our nation’s collective sins.

For the sin of children in cages and mothers with forced sterilizations.

For the sin of police officers who murder and are only sometimes held accountable if someone is videotaping.

For the sin of thousands upon thousands of deaths due to a virus that we have collectively refused to manage appropriately.

For the sin of destroying this Earth that was given to us to safeguard.

For all these sins and more, we confess—we are guilty.

Our sins continue to be an alphabet of woe, and this week, we add another shocking sin.

For the sin of failing to indict or charge officers who turned off their cameras, falsified documents, and murdered Breonna Taylor: we confess—ashamnu.

For the sin of remaining silent and failing to use tochecha to rebuke our brothers and sisters who support policies that perpetuate the systemic racism that leaves each of us with blood on our hands.

For all these sins and more, we confess our guilt and ask for Your help in making amends and working to atone and be worthy of forgiveness.

Our hearts break as we watch the consequences of our failure to act and our willingness to accept our divisions…our hearts break as we see what happens when we choose “shalom bayit” (to keep the peace) rather than to speak out against injustice.

We cannot breathe under the growing weight of our collective sins. We cannot breathe alongside our brothers and sisters. We cannot breathe until all people can breathe. Until all people can sleep soundly in their homes without worrying that their tax-funded dollars will pay for police officers to come and kill them in the middle of the night and not get charged.

This Yom Kippur may we confess, atone, and begin the difficult work of making amends, seeking justice, and becoming worthy of forgiveness.

Our rabbis have taught us to kindle light where there is darkness. As we grieve the darkness that continues to thicken and suffocate us all—let us find the strength to kindle light.

Blessed is the Source of Light who made us holy with commandments and ethical principles and who commands us to kindle light in the darkness.

Here in Louisville, we have begun a new interfaith ritual that I pray will radiate out into our country. In the midst of our communal brokenness and with our diverse experiences and perspectives we invite you to hold our city, and indeed our nation, in prayer, presence, and love.

The flame represents our common humanity and the different candles our unique expressions of its light. Since Wednesday, September 23rd and through the election season, we are asking everyone at 8:00 PM to light a candle and stand at a street corner in their neighborhood, or outside their home, or from their window to light a candle of hope and as an expression of love and healing prayer.

May each of us, enveloped in despair and rage, draw strength from these lights, kindled across our nation, and may this Light inspire us to rise up with the righteous and prophetic rage that needs to be expressed and channeled into the work of justice and healing.

May this new year usher forth the healing, peace, and justice for which we all pray, and may our prayers inspire us to act and make amends. 

Rabbi Dr. Nadia Siritsky, MSSW, BCC, is Director of Program Development and Engagement at Interfaith Paths to Peace in Louisville, Kentucky.

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