When my daughter Rachel was in elementary school, I took her to an interfaith thanksgiving service. I wanted to her to see we all are created, like the Bible says, b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). We are all endowed with uniqueness and infinite value; all deserving of equality.
Deeply committed to Jewish Spiritual Parenting (having just published a book of the same title), I hoped that our interfaith prayers would show my young daughter that people could be together to pray and work for the common good. Soon enough we would be marching for justice together.
Parents are the teachers, right!?
L’dor vador (from generation to generation), we pass down our values. I, the parent, imparted this lesson to her, the child.
But as that little girl grew up and began to travel the world, she became the teacher. Embracing the values her mom and I instilled within her – Jewish values of equality, justice and fairness, and American values of equality, justice and fairness – her eyes were opened wide, seeing the world with clarity and concern… And horror.
And she taught me about what she saw.
What she saw
She witnessed the devastation to families and communities brought about by mass incarceration.
She discovered that the color of one’s skin often predetermined the opportunities or lack thereof in one’s life.
She came to see that while in God’s eyes while we all might be created b’tzelem Elohim on the inside, people were more often treated – or mistreated – on the basis of their skin color on the outside.
The new teacher pushed her father to open his eyes too. She shared her stories, speaking of horrors witnessed. Confronting silence, she sent articles and suggest books. Like Rabbi Eliezer taught, she reminded the student, “Other people’s dignity should be as precious to you as your own” (Pirkei Avot 2:10).
Answering the Call to Justice
And then the call came forth. Rabbis were needed to join a coalition of groups, led by the NAACP, for a 40 day Journey for Justice, from Selma to Washington DC. The rabbis, carrying Torah, would renew our work for justice in jobs, access to voting, safety for everybody’s body, and equality everywhere.
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint project of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, would reinvigorate the partnership with African Americans and other people of color.
Eyes wide open
So the parent, eyes already in the process of opening to the real dangers of being black in America, signed up to walk in #justicesummer #tzedeksummer. After all, Jewish tradition goaded us: “A person should use his or her face, hands, and feet only to honor the Creator” (Tosefta Brachot 4:1).
So he invited his new teacher, his daughter, to march alongside him.
To further educate himself, he began reading in earnest, gaining new perspectives from the experiences of others. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Coates’ letter to his son about the unique dangers of being person of color, opened his heart.
And he thought deeply about what to pack for the journey.
What he heard
For 24 hours of walking, talking, reading, listening and learning, he opened himself to the experiences of others. He opened his mind and heart.
Now this great nation, the United States of America, surpasses all others. Still, when we talk with people of color, asking them about the realities of living as people of color, uncomfortable truths come forward.
About inequities in education
And barriers for voting.
About challenges in the job market.
And dangerous encounters with police.
But it didn’t make sense.
For our Mishnah teaches us “Why did God create only one person, Adam? All people are descended from a single human being, Adam, so that none can say, ‘My ancestor is worthier than yours’” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Yet speaking with people of color and other people concerned about the inequities, he learned that there is a world of experience out there that is so real and yet so foreign to so many of us.
And he was upset.
The Journey to Justice continues on to Washington, with another 150+ Reform Rabbis walking tall, carrying Torah on the quest for justice.
But the daughter, now the teacher, returns home to continue changing the world.
And the father, now the student, returns home, eyes opened and heart heavy. Twenty-three miles marching with Torah have challenged him with new wisdom and burdened him with new worries.
The march affected him greatly. How will it affect you?
Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me.
Advocate for voting rights.
And open your own eyes again.
With the words of Reform Rabbinic student Meir Bargeron (written for another context, but relevant just the same):
God our Banner, lead us.
Galvanize us into action.
May we reach across the divide that separates those who faithfully follow You,
so that we may be known to one another.
Help us to bear witness to injustice among and between Your peoples.
May You inspire us to find new paths to justice.
And may we open our … tent to all
who humbly serve You in compassion and love.
God our Source of Shalom,
be with us today and always.
Give us the strength and courage to speak out when we are frightened,
to act when justice demands,
to love when it is difficult…
So that we may dwell in Your presence,
and see Your reflection in the eyes of all who inhabit Your world.
And let us say: Amen.