This blog is the eighth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center.
Each day of intentional counting through the period of the Omer, as the attributes of mercy, spiritual strength, beauty, truth, compassion and justice shape us, we are brought to the night of Shavuot when, through our learning together as community, we glimpse the way the world can be. From Passover to Shavuot the bread with no ego of Matzah and the simple barley of the Omer prepare us for the Challah; the symbol of being able to taste the sweetness of freedom without having our freedom and our privilege dependent on the oppression of others. We pray that we will be able to enjoy the puffed up Challah without becoming so full of ourselves that we forget the lessons of our journey and that we will always remember never to do to others what was done to us.
Shavuot is the climax of our story as Jews, to accept a Torah, a guide for living, that creates a world where all can flourish. The Talmud dares us to fiercely defend the rights of all humanity to have infinite worth, to have a level playing field, and to be able to be creative and unique. This is a radical vision in a world of have and have-nots, of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and by destroying the environment, of state sponsored laws and cultures that dehumanize and even brutalize other human beings. Today there would be signs on the mountaintop that proclaim that black and brown lives matter, that Palestinian lives matter, that Jewish lives matter. Signs that lift up the voices of those who are marginalized, who cannot find a place to be free from prejudice, who suffer the oppression of being judged by the hue of skin color instead of who they are. Signs that affirm that these lives matter as much as all other lives.
Based on the models of truth and reconciliation sessions that have been used in South Africa, Rwanda, and in Greensboro we launched our first of ten sessions in St Louis this week. As I listened to the black and brown truth tellers speak across lines of age, gender and class to the panel that practiced radical listening without defense and with open hearts, I heard a common agonizing thread. Each person spoke from a strong place of self. I could hear them saying, “I may be different from you but I am a whole human being of infinite worth, why don’t you see me and treat me as such?” They also said, “I do not want your pity or your sympathy but you must reach within to find a place of empathy.”
I thought about an article by the feminist lesbian woman of color Audre Lorde, in which she says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Lorde wisely teaches us that “those who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” must learn to take difference and make it a strength outside the structures of oppression and build a new world where we can all be valued. I also heard the truth tellers (and Lorde) say that it is not their job to educate the oppressors. It is an old tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. “Tell us what you want?” is a diversion from the source of the problem that lives within the souls of those who do not see themselves as a part of the suffering of people of color in this culture that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, old and new. We are all a part of the problem and the Torah teaches us how to be a part of the solution.
The blacklivesmatter movement is challenging us to change the systems of policing and mass incarceration that threaten those lives daily. Our demands are for basic the human dignities that come with access to health care, a living wage and a government that serves all the people. The Torah teaches us that when we are more upset about the destruction of property than we are about the loss of these lives we are committing the sin of idolatry. Make the counting we have done each day to arrive at this holy time of learning on Shavuot open the heart of the world to the healing necessary to count each and every life and make sure that every life counts.
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.
Rabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. Central Reform Congregation recently was the recipient of the Fain Award for their work on Ferguson Activism.