I have been so distraught this week. Looking at your beautiful faces, I have a feeling I’m not alone. Last Sunday, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a black man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a police officer while his children were in the car, a couple of feet away. He will likely end up paralyzed from the waist down. This morning, I learned that his father cried when he saw him —for lots of reasons—but one of them is that Jake is shackled to his hospital bed. Why, his father wondered, why is this necessary? How cruel. In the protests that grew after Blake was shot, a white young man, radicalized by notions of white supremacy, was driven by his mom to Kenosha, was allowed to wander the streets with a weapon he was carrying illegally, was aided by the police, and then fired into the crowd. That night, he killed two people and wounded another. And thought leaders in our country announced—I want him as my bodyguard. And one responded: I want him as my president. And my heart is hurting because we have perverted the sanctity of life over and over again, because it’s dangerous to be a black person in this country, because the moral soul of our nation is up for grabs and it’s not clear to me yet who is going to grab it. And who will define it.
Our Torah portion this week, parshat Ki Teitzei, could be read as a manifesto of vigilantism. Text after text says “if a person has done a certain thing—the men of the town should come together and stone him to death, uviarta ha’ra mikirbecha—meaning: “in order to sweep out evil from your midst.”
You have a wayward son, the townsmen stone him, uviarta ha’ra mikirbecha. A woman has premarital sex, the townsmen stone her to death, uviarta ha’ra mikirbecha. Adultery, rape in which the woman is assumed to not have cried out for help, uviarta ha’ra mikirbecha. They are stoned to death in order to sweep out evil from your midst.
There are also gorgeous and generous texts of justice and compassion for the most vulnerable in this week’s portion, but it would be hard to miss this seed of vigilante justice in which people can take matters into their own hands.
But it is critical to note how our tradition quickly evolved. This was not the society that anyone felt they could or wanted to live in. A practice of extrajudicial execution according to the men of the town was a failure before it began. And it was inherently unjust in the eyes of the rabbis to whom it was immediately clear that those with the power, or the weapons, or the control could corrupt justice through bias, grudges, or whim. So the rabbis created the Sanhedrin, which was a body of 23 judges, to take on the cases of the people. They debated, they proactively sought mitigating circumstances, regularly finding for the stranger, the poor, and the vulnerable. It was said that a court which killed someone every 70 years was a destructive court. And Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva said had they sat on the court, no one would have died.
The idea that a person or a town of people could decide whose life was expendable was loathsome to the Sanhedrin because it is a petri dish for bias and elevated the potential that hate or supremacy could be expressed as law. But we have not done the same in our country—we have not made nearly the effort needed to remove bias or learned hatreds from life and death situations. And in our country, the lives that have been deemed expendable include our black family and neighbors.
We have a sickness as a country. Racism and white supremacy teach people to be afraid of black skin, to feel superior to black people, and that someone who enacts racism violently is hailed a hero. This is a national emergency.
We are in the month of Elul, which is a month of reflection, of cheshbon hanefesh, which translates to an accounting of our souls, as we make our way toward the High Holy Days. We look honestly and compassionately at our deeds from this past year – our shortcomings, where we have hurt others, hurt ourselves, and made grievous errors. It is also a time for deep collective introspection— We ask: where are we as a nation, as a people, what are the sins, the grievous errors, the massive suffering that we are responsible for today?
Racism is a collective sin. We all own it. We live inside of a racist system that makes living in our country as a black person hard and dangerous. It makes black children with toy guns a target for death while white children with real guns are protected. It demonizes black men whose skin color is used as an excuse for having been scared. My friend Reverend Otis Moss III once shared with me that as his little boy entered the 8th grade, and his body changed, and he grew taller—his white teacher who had adored him as a cute little boy had stopped being nice to him. It hurt him so much and he couldn’t understand it, but Otis understood it. And had lived it. We have a racism sickness that is in profound need of healing because it is a fatal disease. Fatal for black bodies and fatal for the moral soul of our country.
We sit here, a community, with profound love in our hearts. We read this news and it makes us sick. We are not that kid or that officer in Kenosha. But we are part of and live in and breathe the air of this country in which black mothers have a much higher risk of dying during labor, that has seen outsized COVID deaths in the Black community, that has inspired our school to prison pipeline, that has left Jacob Blake paralyzed. So we are responsible, too. This is our cheshbon, too.
Former Presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, spoke with Jacob Blake’s dad and asked him what message could he share with the people—and he answered: “tell them that my son is a human being.” Can you imagine that this is a lesson that we all still need to learn?
But we also have a way back. Elul prepares us to do teshuvah, to repair what is broken. It is a pathway toward each other and toward living our values. As we each do, our nation deserves a serious, honest, compassionate, accounting of our deeds. So that we can repair. And seek forgiveness. And become the country we and all who live here deserve.
Our Torah indeed teaches us to “uviarta ha’ra mikirbecha, to sweep out evil from our midst.” May we take our tradition up on this offer. As we do our collective cheshbon hanefesh—we call out the evil of racism and we pray: May we sweep out this evil which diminishes all of our lives. May we sweep it out with our actions, with our words, with our love.
We pray for the healing of our world, we pray that we might be part of that healing.
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