Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 15

Racism and the Current Situation in Our Country

June 2, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

We hope and pray that this correspondence finds you in good health and managing our difficult circumstances. I want to remind you to feel free to call or email me at any time (contact information below) to share your experiences, theological questions and even, to ask, how we, as your community, can support you! If you know anyone experiencing health issues, please allow us to pray for them. If you know someone who needs our support, please contact me or the dedicated officers of our shul.

Like all of us, I was horrified beyond belief to view online videos, which captured the police brutality that led to the death of an unarmed forty-six-year-old citizen of Minneapolis, named George Floyd. For over eight minutes, an officer forced his knee on the back of the neck of the prone victim, who continually voiced, “I can’t breathe.”

As the first African American president, I was interested in what Former President Barack Obama had to say about the situation. President Obama shared his response, which included his own sentiments, as well as comments from others with whom he spoke. One conversation from a middle-aged African American businessman included the reaction,” ‘the knee on the neck' is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help."

Ultimately, Obama wrote, it is up to officials in Minnesota to thoroughly investigate and seek justice for Floyd's death. But, he wrote, it is up to everyone "to work together to create a 'new normal' in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts."

Considering this tragedy, and the resultant violent riots which have taken place across the country, I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s lifelong advocacy for non-violent protest. In his longest written letter, composed from a Birmingham jail cell in April of 1963 he shared…

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gain saying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community.” “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

As a Jewish community, it was only several short months ago, specifically, on January 5, 2020, that twenty-five thousand people gathered to march and protest growing incidents of anti-Semitism in our neighborhoods. And while that gathering was a “success,” we must always be attentive not only to our pain but to the suffering of others.

This is in no way intended to be a political statement, but please allow me to suggest some Jewish food for thought for the week:

1) We cannot take up only our cause without being considerate of others. The Torah mandates us thirty-six times in the sacred text to protect the oppressed and be empathetic towards their experience.

2) Consider the famous words of Lutheran Minister Martin Niemoller:

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then, they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist
Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then, they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

3) Consider the words of Rabbi Hillel in the Mishna of Pirke Avoth:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי

He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?

4) In your personal prayers, pray for the peace of our country, its inhabitants, its leaders and advisors and pray that in the days ahead we will find God’s greatest gift, the gift of Shalom, the gift of peace in a world at peace.

While we suffer through tribulations of racism and the Coronavirus, as a final thought, I want to reflect upon the potentiality of human experience and offer a reason to be hopeful. Just this past weekend, our country achieved a milestone, reminding us of the phenomenal good that can come through the best of human collaboration, intellect and mutual respect.

As we were celebrating Shabbat, two Americans traveled to the International Space Station in an American-made spacecraft, from American soil, for the first time since the space shuttle program ended in 2011 thanks to a partnership between the American company SpaceX and NASA. While this serves as an important achievement for our country, it demonstrates what we can do when we set our collective minds to something and work together for the greater good.

Let us resolve to treat others as we would want them to treat us, and as a people, let’s continue to lead by example and let our actions and behaviors shine as a light to others. Human potential is greater than we sometimes realize. If we all do our part, together we can overcome the challenges of the day and achieve greatness.


Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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