Posted on May 9, 2020
As I sat down to write this sermon in my office at Shir Tikva, I looked out of my windows and watched as the wind blew through the trees. At this time of year, I can see green all around me, and when the wind blows it is as though the leaves are dancing together to some unheard melody. It was a strong wind today, but not a wind that will be powerful enough to knock any of the trees down. On most days, the wind causes the trees to bend, it blows the leaves off and perhaps even a branch or two; but sometimes there is a gust so powerful that the tree does not simply sway, it breaks and falls.
And how do we respond to a broken tree? If it’s on our property, it’s our problem. If it blocks a route we’re following, then we have to face it and go around it. If it’s simply to the side of street, we might remark on it, but we keep moving. But as the famous question asks: If a tree falls in the forest does it even make a sound?
A dangerous wind is blowing through our society. It is a wind of prejudice, of bigotry, of hate, of discrimination, of inequality and injustice; and its gusts of wind are directed at the Black community. This wind is a constant, it is unrelenting; every day it causes leaves to fall and branches to be broken; there are micro-aggressions, small, if we can use that word, examples of prejudice and discrimination. An entire community is forced to live in the face of this unrelenting wind.
And then on occasion it gusts. It gusts so strongly that it causes people, lives and families to be broken and destroyed. Ahmaud Arbery who was murdered for going on a run; Breonna Taylor who was murdered for being in her home; Trayvon Martin who was murdered after going to buy skittles; Jordan Davis who was murdered because he was playing his music too loud. I could go on with too many examples. And this week we add the name of George Floyd who was murdered by a policeman. These are the names that we know. These are the names of people whose stories have made headlines, but how many names remain unspoken, how many trees have fallen in the forest with no one to hear.
At this moment we accept and understand that we are living through a strange period of history as we deal with a global pandemic. So many of us simply wish that life would get back to normal. Our dream is to be able to go back to the way things were just a few months ago. But what is the normal to which we will be returning? What is the normal that we have grown to accept in American society? And will we acknowledge that for the Black community, returning to normal means returning to a situation of prejudice and persecution, of a fear of those in law enforcement, and to a society where they face daily challenges, anxieties and concerns that are completely foreign to me.
Today, in the news the focus has been divided; attention has been given to the riots taking place in Minneapolis and to the arrest, already long overdue, of the former police officer Derek Chauvin who is to be charged with murder.
I can understand people wanting to condemn rioting; but before we do that, we have to consider what would lead not just an individual, but an entire community to take to the streets? How far must they have been pushed that their only recourse of action is to riot? What does it tragically say about the lack of the faith in Government or the institutions of society to stand up and do anything to help their desperate situation? People riot out of a sense of desperation. They riot putting their lives on the line. And they riot because they feel like there is no other option.
And for a moment we might pause and ask the question why are we using the term rioting, rather than calling this a demonstration? Is it a demonstration when we do it, but a riot when they, whoever that they may be, do it? In our society, from the very top, there is a dangerous game being played in the way that protestors are referred to and threatened depending on which side of a debate or disagreement they fall on. When some are referred to as very good people, while others are referred to as thugs an agenda and prejudice is revealed.
Cantor Hollis shared a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Facebook today. Taken from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, the person who created it had simply replaced the word Birmingham with Minneapolis; it is eerie how appropriate it feels for today:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
As we aspire to return to normal, it cannot be a normal where millions of Americans are treated differently because of their race. It cannot be a normal where Amy Cooper calls the police and weaponizes her race, claiming to be threatened by a black man simply because he asked her to obey the rules and put her dog on a leash. It cannot be a normal where we tolerate the murder of people because of the color of their skin.
You may be wondering where the Jewish content is in this Shabbat sermon. Sure this is important you may think, but how is this Jewish. My answer to that question is that this is a fundamentally Jewish issue. You shall not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You should love the stranger as yourself. Few are guilty, but all are responsible. You shall be a blessing and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. You shall be a light unto the nations. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. When a community, any community, suffers persecution and prejudice, it is a fundamental Jewish issue.
I was talking to a friend and colleague about this sermon and the image of trees in the wind. He said to me, you know what protects trees from the wind, it is other trees. In a study of lessons learned from hurricanes they found that “trees in groups survive winds better than trees growing individually”. When a tree is on its own a gust of wind can blow it down, but when a tree is surrounded by other trees the effects of the winds are dispersed amongst them all and they can weather it more effectively.
We should be doing everything we can to stop the wind of prejudice and racism that is blowing through our society; to be a force against it and to block it. And we cannot only be there to respond when we hear the thud and witness the devastation of a tree that has fallen in our path. We must be there every day, that means picking up leaves, it means tending to the broken branches, and yes it will unfortunately mean responding when a tree is uprooted and destroyed. When we stand together, we can help shield one another from this devastating wind and we can protect each other from its most harmful consequences.
There are the events like the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and so many others that echo and reverberate in our world. But then there are the trees that fall in the forest with no one to bear witness and there is the ongoing wind assaulting all the trees to varying extents. To be allies, to truly support the black community, we must reach out today, but we must also reach out tomorrow and find those ways to build connections of friendship, love and solidarity not just in moments of crisis, but as part of our every day. And we cannot do this passively; we must seek out those daily opportunities to stand together with the Black community, and all communities of color, in solidarity and support to help them weather the storm. While this terrible wind keeps blowing, every day we can and we must respond; ufros aleinu sukkat shalom – we will spread a shelter of peace, protection, care and love over them and over us, and let us say amen.