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Rabbi's Message

The events of the past two weeks since the killing of George Floyd in an act of police brutality have been tragic and jarring and, yes--at points--uplifting and hopeful. It has been almost too much to comprehend, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis. Our nation has been embroiled in moments of civil unrest in the past, but never with the troubling layer of fear that a pandemic might be exacerbated as people take to the streets and public squares of our nation. 

How are we to feel, as Jews and as Americans, about these matters? What texts might guide us?  At the heart of all of this is breath. The very beginning of humanity starts with breath. We are taught in Genesis, that the human being was created when God “blew into (our) nostrils the breath of life,” “Vayipach b’apav nishmat chayim.” (Gen 2:7) And so it has been during these past two weeks since George Floyd lay on the ground begging “Please, I can’t breathe,”  that nishmat chayim, the breath of life, has been at the essence of our national crisis. 

But not only since May 25th. We know that George Floyd is only the latest name on a long and growing list of black and brown bodies that have been beaten, abused, branded, and killed by white people. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body.” To ignore the pleas of “I can’t breathe” and take the life of a dark skinned person is not a phenomenon of 21st Century policing in America. It is who we have been as a nation since that infamous year, 1619, when the first slaves were deposited on our shores as chattel. 

And now the plea of “I can’t breathe” has been taken up as a mantra by those in the streets of our cities to say “Dayenu!” Enough! The nishmat chayim, the essence of life that God breathed into us, has become the fundamental tool that animates a cry for justice that says that this “American tradition” cannot endure. This is the hopeful and uplifting part of what we have seen in recent weeks -to watch people of all stripes, but primarily young people, using their voices and the spirit that God has implanted within them to say: We will not stand for the subjugation of black and brown people in our nation anymore. We will not abide the everyday racist abuse that people of color experience in our America, that makes it a fearful thing to merely step out of one’s door and enter the world each day. Dayenu; Enough!

Then there are the attempts by law enforcement and elected officials to suck the breath out of those who raise their voices- to use chemicals and shields to move them aside, to stand guard at symbols of Democracy in order to attempt to suffocate the breath of peaceful protest emanating from their souls. But acts of domination cannot remove the nishmat chayim that God has given humanity, because it is the essence of who we are and who God intended us to become. We honor those officers and officials who have walked and knelt with the protesters this week. They are seeking to strengthen the nishmat chayim and help lead the way to justice.

It is ironic that this remarkable show of the use of our breath to demand justice and decency and to envision a better world, the likes of which we have not seen in this nation in decades, is being carried out in the shadow of people gasping for breath in sick beds and others only being able to  continue to breathe through ventilators because of a world-wide pandemic. Those in the streets know full well that they are risking their own breath in order to bring a greater message to our nation and to those who guide it. May they breathe free and strong and take us to a better future.

As Jews, we know only too well the experience of being brutalized, branded, and murdered because we were deemed to be a lesser form of life. So let us be the first and the strongest in affirming the nishmat chayim in every human being, and join vigorously in the call for justice for people of color in America by saying “I can’t breathe unless we learn to let everyone breathe.”  

Rabbi Dena A. Feingold

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780