June 6, 2020 — 14 Sivan 5780
When the coronavirus first hit and schools around the world shut down, Israeli mother Shiri Kenigsberg Levi rose to internet stardom, sharing her displeasure with the world in a hilarious homeschool harangue. A few weeks later she was at it again – this time in honor of Mother’s Day, reflecting on the super-power of one word.
She begins: “I realized something that if not for the coronavirus I would not have paid attention to – that the children say one word without adding anything, and I already know what they need…Ema.” Mom.
“There’s this…‘E-maaah’ [deep voiced] which is a teenager who hasn’t eaten in 10 minutes and is already starving.”
“There’s this…‘EE-MAAAAHHHH!’ [annoyed]…which is a teenager who’s been fortressed in her room for fifty days…and one of her brothers dares to open the door for a second.”
She goes on for several minutes, sharing lots of ways “Mom” is called out in tones that any mother, in any language, immediately understands.
Last week, a son cried out “Mama,” in a tone no child of God should ever need to use. And the world broke. Or rather, we heard in George Floyd’s call – perhaps some of us for the first time – that it was already broken, in a way that finally broke our hearts.
For the first few weeks when our world shut down, it seemed as though we finally understood a too-rarely accepted truth: that no matter who we are, what community we come from, what faith or creed we follow, how much money we have or do not have, what our personal status, our zipcode, our skin color, or our class is – we are all in this world together, inextricably bound and dependent upon each other. We are all in the same boat.
Except, as my sister remarked as she passed on to me something she recently read, “We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm.”
The storm is the same – coronavirus – but some of us are weathering it in seaworthy vessels where we can comfortably curl up while the wind wails outside, while others are holding on to battered rafts with tattered sails that have seen too many storms to lie down to any sort of peace. Some of our boats pass gently by, while others are assailed even simply seeking safe harbor.
Today, George Floyd’s cry puts us intimately face to face with an urgent question: how do we change ourselves and our world to stop accepting that disparity?
Today, after too many years, after too many deaths, George Floyd’s cry calls on us to confront racism not as somebody else’s problem, but one that demands something of us all.
For us, as Jews, George Floyd’s cry awakens a core command at the foundation of who we strive to be: You must not stand idly by. Wherever there is suffering, our tradition and our history obligate us toward empathy. From Egypt to Pogroms to the Shoah, we are reminded again and again that our people are intimately acquainted with the horror of hatred; therefore, we are obligated to stand against that horror whenever it rises again.
We know this. We feel this. But, too often, we fall short of this. There is some level at which, each time we see the news and turn the channel, thinking, “well, what can I do,” we accept the rot of racism as an inevitable part of the fabric of our American lives.
There is some level at which, each time we think to ourselves, “that’s not me,” rather than examine our own unconscious bias, we fall short of our sacred mission.
There is some level at which, each time we are outraged and then allow our outrage to recede unanswered, we are complicit in the status quo. As Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
If George Floyd’s cry reaches our heart, it brings with it a demand for each of us to experience personally a shared primal response that every mother and father knows: that when your child is crying, there is nothing that could prevent you from running to their side.
What that means for us now is something Elie Wiesel once taught: “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
In so many ways, we are seeing the fulfillment of that charge this week. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, there are marches and vigils and profound energy for change.
And… there is a question. How do we turn that energy, which is fueled by deep moral outrage, into sustained and systemic change? There are many answers, practical and political, that are critically important. But I want to dwell with you this morning on just one – the personal.
I want to invite you to imagine what the world would look like, if we – you and I – heard George Floyd’s cry, “Mama,” as a sacred call to look again at the men and women we see as “other” and see them instead as somebody’s baby.
Our Haftarah this morning is odd. If you wanted to tell the story of Samson, you would speak about a brave warrior, the strong man, invulnerable but for his love of one woman.
But our Haftarah does not speak of that man. It speaks instead of a baby – in fact, not even a baby, but the promise of a baby. It speaks of the careful details that go into raising that baby into a child and then into a man. It speaks of the ways his parents were entrusted with a sacred covenant to nurture him, to hold him and love him, and raise him up to holiness.
In ways that are unique to Samson, and in ways that every parent can relate to – watch out for teen drinking, plant in him from day one the values that will sustain him, invest him with your care – the Haftarah starts with Samson’s mother and his father, reminding us that every person we encounter is somebody’s beloved baby.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book “Between the World and Me,” asks us to imagine those same sacred details in the life of another young black man unjustly killed:
“Think of all the love poured into him,” he writes, “Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the … treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League…Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters…Think of all the embraces…dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.”
We cannot control the actions of others. That is all too clear this week as racist actions have continued, even in the wake of George Floyd’s death, with continued reports of black men and women profiled around the country, even here in Boston. That base hatred continues is incontrovertibly clear. But we can control what we do.
We can make the choice to see – to deepen our engagement with communities of color. We can make the choice to listen – to hear their experience with an open and humble heart. We can make the choice to stay the course – to not go back to business as usual when the news fades from the front page.
And, most importantly, we can make the choice – in the grocery store, at the park, on the beach, at the office as we start to go back, at the gas pump, wherever and whenever we are – to consciously challenge our first glance of a man or woman our prejudices may at times lead us to fear or dismiss, and see, instead, each person through his or her mother’s eyes.
Because the only way to destroy the lie that is racism is to see through the lens of love that everyone is somebody’s baby.
On Tuesday, after a press conference where George Floyd’s family shared the power of his life and legacy, his 6-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi), was lifted onto the shoulders of Floyd’s friend, former NBA player Stephen Jackson. As she took in the crowds around her, she smiled and declared: “Daddy changed the world!”
It is up to every one of us now to help make those words true.