Shema Yisrael, Listen Jews…and White People

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Like most of you, I am heart-broken. Yesterday, after the conclusion of the Festival of Shavuot (during which I do not typically use electronics), I heard about the destruction occurring in many cities across the US, including here in Cleveland.

I wish I knew what to say or do in this moment. I feel despair. Racism has been an issue here for over 400 years–since the first European explorers arrived and met the people who had been living here for generations and generations. The legacy of the enslavement of Africans is a stain on the history of this nation; there has never been a true reckoning among Americans that the greatness of the country was in large part built (literally) on the backs of those of African descent. Even though slavery ended with the Civil War, even though there is a Civil Rights Act, even though the 44th President was a black man, the inequalities, cruelties and injustice persist. We don’t learn. (Just as we don’t learn after dozens and dozens of mass shootings). We are outraged for a few days, and then everything goes back to “normal” for those of who have the privilege to not be personally affected.

The African-American community and others of goodwill are fed up with the injustice. I get it, but as a white man I cannot fully comprehend it. I’m trying to educate myself, to learn more, to LISTEN.

Many in this country–but particularly people of color–are mourning, not just George Floyd, but mourning the thousands of others whose lives were taken, whose dreams were crushed, whose opportunities were denied, whose justice was withheld. There is sadness not only for what has happened, but also for what could have been, and for what should be and is not yet.

Jewish tradition teaches us a lot about how to approach loss. Two teachings in particular are worth remembering. Sefer Hasidim, is a collection of the teachings of great rabbis assembled by Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (12-13 centuries). One of the teachings is that we are to say nothing to a mourner while the deceased still lies before him/her. In other words, in those moments of extreme pain and grief (before even the burial has taken place), we are bidden to keep our mouths shut. Anything we say, will not be heard…or it may be heard and do more harm than good. Don’t try to pacify someone in a moment when their emotions are valid, when they need to be experienced and expressed. We are not there to speak…but to LISTEN and simply BE THERE. There is another well-known law that when one goes to a Shiva House (a house of mourning) one should not greet the mourners, but rather wait for the mourners to greet them (Shulchan Aruch). Again, this experience is not about what we have to say, but about what those in mourning have to say. It is up to us to LISTEN and BE THERE.

There are times when we simply don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say to my African-American friends and acquaintances. “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem right. “How are you doing?” seems ridiculous. So I will take my lead from Jewish tradition. I will be present however I can; I will BE THERE in meaningful ways. And, instead of pretending I have the answers or that something I might say will make things better, I will LISTEN. I will listen to the needs of those who are suffering…and then respond–not with words as much as with action.

As a rabbi, there are few times when I am at a loss for words. When I am, I do my best to just listen and be there. Then I will know what best to do next…and with God’s help, actually make it happen.

I’m listening now.