may you be free

Today was Hebron, a place I’ve been hearing about for a long time. It’s cited as one of the worst examples of the effects of the occupation on the Palestinians. And that’s just the everyday conditions: When parshat Hayei Sarah comes around each fall, it is somehow able to get worse, when thousands of right-wing, fanatically religious Jews make pilgrimage to the area and there are inevitably clashes between and among the settlers, visitors, Palestinian residents, and Israeli security forces. In response, a couple of friends started Project Hayei Sarah, using the Torah cycle to raise awareness about what is happening in the city that is the supposed burial place of Avraham, Sarah, and their descendants. 

The trip started with visits to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. I decided not to enter either: The latter because Jews aren’t allowed inside (I could have entered by lying or under cover of the rest of the delgation, whom the guide identified as “a Christian tour group,” but didn’t want to do either) — and the former because I don’t want to ascribe holiness to a place that has been violently wrest from the Palestinians and used to justify military and settler violence. (Plus, I’m pretty sure that “the patriarchs” aren’t buried there.) I am clear about my reasons, but it was a hard decision to make, and I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion. So while most others visited both places, I sat on a bench in the sun and meditated, doing a blessing practice I learned from one of my teachers. I repeated in my head, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be free,” sending the mantra to all the residents of Hebron. 

It came into my head while I was meditating last week: “There is enough compassion.” So I’ve been trying to remember and to act in ways that illustrate that compassion (particularly in myself) is not a finite resource. Compassion for the occupied does not preclude compassion for the occupier, and vice versa. That’s been hard to hold on to these past eight days.

Then began the walk with Issa, our Palestinian guide, who is from Hebron. He led us through about 10 blocks of what used to be a Palestinian occupied neighborhood. Well, not all 10 blocks: He had to leave us for about 3 or 4, to go around another way to meet us on the other side. As a Palestinian, he is not allowed in this part of the city, where he was born and grew up

The streets were almost completely empty of . . . everything. Empty apartment buildings, shuttered businesses, deserted roads, abandoned mosques and schools. There were only paths of egress blocked with stones and graffiti like מות לערבים, “death to Arabs.” Indeed, the Arab presence has been exterminated. 

Two Israeli soldiers asked to look at our passports as we continued. There’s no official checkpoint — just two kids with enormous guns blocking the street. As the delegate in front of me passed by, the soldier, recognizing his typical Jewish name and seeing that he was born in Ohio, asked him in perfect, American-accented English, where he grew up. He explained, “I’m from Columbus.” As he handed the passport back he added softly, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

When we met up with our guide after walking down the three empty blocks that merited a passport check, the soldiers who just stood and listened as we began the tour were replaced by soldiers who followed us as we walked. They were a few feet behind, guns at the ready, talking on the phone or writing on their hands (?). I did not feel safer — which I guess was the point.

hebron: four jews, two very different purposes; photo by david kerr


Also following us were small kids (and not-so-small kids), begging for money and trying to sell “Palestine” bracelets and small embroidered bags. This hasn’t happened anywhere else we’ve traveled in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Our guide noted, “I don’t approve of what they are doing, but families rely on them for income. The unemployment rate for Palestinians in Hebron is over 70%.” This was the first time in a really long while that I actually didn’t give change when asked for money on the street. I always give at least something when asked in the U.S. But I didn’t have any coins, and I was scared that I would be overwhelmed by kids. I sure didn’t hold on to that compassion for very long.

After our guide was harassed by the police and we were all turned away from continuing up the street, we entered the Old City of Hebron through a huge grey metal gate structure with turnstiles controlled by a guard. It completely filled the tight space that was the entrance to the narrow paths and low ceilings of the Old City, and it was completely incongruous with the dirt road that led us into it and the smooth cobblestones that met us as we exited. And that’s when the permanence of the occupation — and my complicitness in it — really hit me. It felt like walking into a prison in the U.S., and those seem to me immoveable. They only expand, never contract. For the first time on this trip, I began to despair about whether any of this can be undone. I think it’s a bell that can’t be unrung; for me it’s certainly something I can’t unsee. The destruction seems irrevocable. I heard in my head the question full of anguish: How can we ever make this right?

And what I’m terrified of is the possibility that Hebron, in all its extremity, is actually the logical result of the occupation. If Zionism is about the displacement of one people with another, then Hebron is a success story (albeit an incohate one). It is not an aberration. In Hebron, the state is doing exactly what its ideology dictates.

When we met with the IDF refusniks on Friday afternoon, the woman who spoke to us said something that was so revelatory and also so obvious: “The point of having a Jewish state,” she said, “is to have a Jewish army.” And so we do. And so here we are.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

marriage

Today began and ended with my reflecting on marriage. It also began with sad tears and ended with happy ones.

I am sorry to say that this morning I had to go to D.C. police (MPD) headquarters. My husband had his wallet and phone stolen from a gym locker last month, and the police report on the incident was the last document I needed to complete our renter’s insurance claim. The insurance company had requested the report from MPD but naturally had not yet received it three weeks later. The complainant (or the complainant’s spouse) can request the report for free — but only in person! — so I headed to Judiciary Square after breakfast. I expected the process to be at least somewhat trying — as is almost all interaction with District bureaucracy.

It started with the metal detector. “You have cuticle clippers in your purse,” the guy running the x-ray machine tells me. “Where are you going?” When I tell him I need a copy of a police report, he non sequiturs, “Please take the clippers out of the building.” (I have no idea why he asked me what I was doing in the building, because it sure didn’t seem to make a difference to him.)

“I have to leave them outside?” I ask, confused. “I didn’t say that,” he responds. “You have to take them out of the building.”

Sighing, I take the offending object outside and place it on a concrete window ledge. I come back inside and repeat the security drill. This time (but why wasn’t it last time as well?) it’s a pair of tweezers. “Take them outside the building,” he repeats.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This time, it’s my coin purse. He tells me to just hold on to it as I walk through the metal detector, which of course goes off. I point out the coin purse in my hand to the other security person, who wands me anyway. The wand beeps near my jacket pocket: my office keys, which haven’t caused the metal detector to go off during the previous three times I’ve already been through it. “Why did you leave those in your pocket?” she demands. Flustered, I stammer that I must have forgotten about them. She motions me back again. I put the keys in the purse and try again. This time she wants to know why I’m holding my coin purse. “Because he told me to,” I almost scream in frustration.

All of this would merely be Kafkaesque, but I’m retelling it to underline the fact that I was in no mood for bullshit when I got to the Public Documents Unit. The trouble begins when the woman returns with copy of the report she’s retrieved. “I need to see your ID, because your name isn’t on the report.” I explain that I wasn’t involved in the incident and hand her my driver’s license. She hands it back to me: “I need to see something with your married name.”

Feeling the heat rising, I force myself to say calmly, “I don’t have a ‘married name.’ I didn’t change my name when I got married. I am telling you he’s my husband; the address on my license is the same as his on the report, and I am wearing a wedding ring.”

“Well, I’m wearing a wedding ring, and my husband’s dead.” (Yes. She actually said that.) She continues, “I can’t believe you don’t have something with his name.” We go back and forth in this vein until she finally thrusts the report at me and peevishly informs me, “You just got a free report.”

“Yes,” I reply. “The free report that I’m entitled to as the complainant’s spouse!” I’m so angry at this point I am shaking. “So you say,” she ends.

I’m crying before I’ve gotten on the elevator, kicking myself for letting her get to me and for not anticipating something like this. The thought did flash through my brain as I was looking online for how to get a police report: It’s free for a spouse . . . I wonder how that is verified? (There is absolutely nothing on that page about needing proof of marriage or what that would entail.) As far as I can tell, the Public Documents Unit at MPD is “verifying” marriage through last names.

Not only is this “policy” hopelessly old-fashioned (I can’t believe I’m the first spouse with a different last name to request a copy of a police report), it’s only going to become more problematic as same-sex married couples (who choose to take each other’s names even less than straight people do) become victims of crime. So MPD is either going to have to come up with a way to easily verify marriage, or they’re just going to have to take our word for it. The kicker to all of this is that the fee for police report for a third party is $3. The woman who works in this office gave me a hard time over three dollars.

I was surprised this hurt so much, and I don’t cry easily. In retrospect I know it bothered me because I have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy. (And I choose these words in particular because my therapist has said exactly this to me: “Salem, you have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy.”) And this is a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic policy par excellence. Usually I just get annoyed or frustrated with this type of stupid inflexibility, not hurt. But this felt like an attack on my personal choices — and on my commitment to my marriage. It devastated me that someone would doubt that I was married solely because my spouse and I don’t share a last name.

The day ended better than it began, though. From one of my least favorite D.C. institutions to one of my favorite: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I went to the 6th & the City Friday night services because my friend Julia would be there on her last night in D.C. before moving to L.A., and my friend Annie was celebrating her aufruf.

Kabbalat Shabbat services always make me feel better, and sitting in the pew — listening to Rabbi Shira bless Annie and Marc, singing siman tov and mazel tov, watching everyone dance around the sanctuary, and throwing candy — I was so grateful to be a part of tradition that celebrates marriage. There was no one in that crowded room who thought any less of my marriage because my husband and I have different last names (least of all the rabbi, who also does not share a name with her husband). My heart was full, and I was happy to be affirmed, happy for Annie and Marc, happy to be Jewish, back in the space where I got married. Hare ata mekudeshet li betaba’ at zo k’dat Moshe v’ Yisrael . . .