We enter yet another Shabbat steeped in the grief of racist state violence, as Jacob Blake, now paralyzed, is handcuffed to his hospital bed fighting for his life in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Shot in the back seven times by police last Sunday. Only made worse by the horror of a young white supremacist murdering two protestors. Both violent acts praised by Trump himself. Law and order politics are revealed for what they have always been, a code-name to enslave, imprison, impoverish, and murder Black people in this country.
This same week we mark the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, and prepare for the Black National Convention tonight. This same week we read these words in parashat Ki Teitzei:
"You shall not turn over to their master an escaped slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. They shall live with you in your midst, in any place they choose that is good for them. You shall not oppress them." (Deut. 23:16-17)
About these verses Rabbi Shai Held writes, "It is hard to overstate the revolutionary implications of these verses. As a contemporary Bible scholar puts it, for the Torah 'to legislate so contrary to the universally accepted norms for the treatment of slaves indicates an intentional critique of the very nature of the institution itself.'"
For me, one of the great awakenings of the last six months has been coming to understand that the institution of policing in America, which as a white person I was taught to trust and venerate, began as a group of white people out to catch runaway slaves. Over time its practices were institutionalized and professionalized which has perpetuated the legal lynching of Black people in America. I am holding this truth with devastating clarity.
Understood as the biblical imperative to grant refuge to a runaway slave, I am beginning to understand this week's parsha as the biblical imperative to defund the police. And I am hearing the fiery voice of Torah call out, any institution whose foundational purpose was to capture runaway slaves must be defunded, dismantled, and transformed. I am not an expert on the how. But many are. For those of us who are not Black, what I know in my bones is that it is not enough to proclaim that Black Lives Matter. We must actually work to enact their vision by organizing to meet the demands of a movement whose express purpose is preserving life. This is our spiritual obligation.
To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke these words 57 years ago:
"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality."
This week in our daily study of the Laws of Teshuvah, we learned that the first three steps of teshuvah are as follows:
I arrive to this Shabbat with a deepening awareness of my own complicity with policing and its crucial role in the murder and oppression of Black lives. I arrive resolved to divest from policing.
In the prophetic words of Martin Espada,
"If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year..."
May this be the year.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.