Parashat Naso, 2020

Racism and Brutality

After thirty seven years as a Rabbi, immediately after Shavuot, my head is programmed to think about what was, until five years ago, the Youth Winter Camp. (Remember that in the southern hemisphere summer is in January and February). But my internal programming also connects me to the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days.

This week I have been working to get acquainted with the Machzor Mishkan Hanefesh, which is completely new and different to me. But there are some things that remain unchanged. One of them is that we say our “Vidui“, that is, the confessions of our errors, in the plural. We do not say “Avi Malki”, “Ashamti, Bagad´ti, Gazalti”, “Al Chet shechatati lefanecha”. We say: “Avinu Malkeinu”, “Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu”, “Al Chet shechatanu lefanecha”… all in the plural.

Some of those mistakes, it’s true, maybe I’ve made. But for most of them, the truth is that I have not committed them. What then am I confessing? I always remember the explanation of my Rabbi, Marshall T. Meyer, quoting his Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Some are guilty, but we are all responsible.”

And it’s true, it is important to point out those who are guilty for the brutality, and the murder of George Floyd. I cannot remove from my mind the image of the police officer kneeling on his neck. It would be very easy to just point the finger of accusation, and not take charge of the deep and structural problems of our society. We are all responsible, as a society, by action or omission.

In the case of the Jewish People, both our sacred sources and our history order us to react to injustice. It is impossible for me to think of Judaism without reacting to discrimination and racism. The supremacist ideas of the Nazis, from one ethnic group over another, are disgusting and alien to our deepest values.

Likewise, “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” (Justice, Justice you will pursue) is interpreted as Justice with justice you will pursue. The just ends must be achieved with just means. There is no excuse to destroy, steal and assault.

Nor is it an excuse that the pandemic, the confinement, the loss of life, the loss of jobs and economic fragility are the cause of so much violence. I understand the accumulated anguish, but it is not an excuse.

It even seems to me that it completely distorts the original claim, and perhaps changes the focus out of the real and profound claim to stop police abuse and brutality especially against minorities and the African American fellows.

When I had to go through the process to get my Social Security number six months ago, they asked me about my race. For me, it was a new and strange question. What race? The first thing I thought is, I am human, this is my race. But the form gave other possibilities. And I asked myself: Am I Latino, because I was born in South America and speak Spanish? Am I white, because my grandparents came from Eastern Europe? But I have other grandparents who came from the Middle East! What kind of mix am I?

Why is it so important in this country to mention the color of my skin or the characteristics related to my hair or the color of my eyes? What do we pre-assume when asking these questions? Isn’t it anachronistic to think in these terms when we are living in a kind of global village?

I confess that I felt weird. Something inside me was making noise, and I was reminded of the stereotypes of Jews with big noses and ears, bulging eyes and a hunched back.

I don’t want to be disrespectful. I am just beginning to live and get to know this society up close, but I cannot fail to see two deep and structural problems:

The first is the abuse of power and brutality of those whose mission is to protect and care for us. Believe me, I carry in my backpack the experience of a military dictatorship that violated all human rights codes, making thirty thousand people disappear, stealing babies and identities, creating concentration camps and throwing living drugged people into the river and the sea.

The signs of sensitivity and rationality must come from the highest spheres, and it is our responsibility to choose those authorities well, because my experience tells me that the path of apathy and lack of participation, will lead us from not wanting to choose, to not being able to choose at all.

The second is racism. Believing that the different are inferior, that the poor chose to be poor, that the immigrant can infect us with something contagious and bad. As I said before, as Jews, we have a long history as immigrants, being different and discriminated against. For us it is a Mitzvah to speak up and out, and for the United States of America it is a pending issue which needs “tikkun.” Hopefully this tragedy and these unfortunate episodes, open us to a rethinking and reconsideration of this social disease.

Let me finish with a few words of Torah. In Parashat Naso, which we read this week, there is a concept that is not well known called “Lim’ol Ma´al”, which means taking something that does not belong to you, but to God. For example, stealing something from the tabernacle or the Temple. The person who makes this mistake must confess what they’ve done before trying to repair it. He or she has to recognize the problem. There is no other way to try and solve it. No “Teshuva” and reparation is accomplished without a “Cheshbon Hanefesh”, an accounting of the soul, and sincere repentance.

There is nothing more divine and that belongs more to God than human life. We need to confess and recognize that there is a problem that we must face, and that we have the opportunity to do so as a society.

It is about doing justice for the murder of a man, but much more than this. It is about doing justice for all.

Because some are guilty, but we are all responsible.