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Special Message from Rabbi Micah

06/02/2020 04:58:42 PM


Growing up in Los Angeles had its advantages.  I was able to see the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, enjoy the good weather and beach life, and be surrounded by a culturally rich and vibrant Jewish community which fostered me and helped me become the rabbi I am today.  As wonderful as that all was, as a young teen, I was also given a front row seat to the not so great aspects of Los Angeles, one of which was the LA riots 28 years ago. During that horrifying time, I witnessed neighbors and friends angry, rioting, torching, and looting the businesses in the surrounding area.  I watched from my bedroom window as childhood friends ran into their houses with garbage bags full of looted merchandise. Our once peaceful and diverse neighborhood became an epicenter of racial tensions.

 My friends were in pain and angry and there were no answers forthcoming.  Now, 28 years later, I still struggle for answers.  I struggle to understand why, as Rodney King said, “Why we can’t all just get along?” I did not understand why we could not do what he asked then.  Today, with more maturity, I understand how things got to where they did, but just like that thirteen-year-old boy, I still do not understand how human beings can treat each other without basic dignity and respect.  For the last 28 years I have seen people talk about racial injustice, white privilege, and the intolerance against bigotry.  And yet, here we are. In many ways, it feels like we have not made any progress.   

Aristotle once famously stated that “nature abhors a vacuum.”  While this might not actually be true in nature, it is true of human behavior.  In the absence of substance or answers, we have a compulsion to fill the void.  In this current climate I would suggest we practice the art of tzim tzum and fight the urge to fill the void with our own voices or answers.

Tzim tzum is, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, how God created the universe.  The infinity of God could not possess anything finite, for the finite is paradoxical to the nature of infinity.  Therefore, God had to perform an act of tzim tzum, self-contraction, to create the space where that which is finite could exist. 

We too, those of us who are white and privileged, must also practice tzim tzum, and avoid the compulsion to fill the void that is created in the face of a problem.  What needs to fill the void is not our voice but theirs.  It is our time to follow, not lead. It is the time for us to listen, not speak.

Miroslav Wolf, a professor at Yale Divinity School said the following:

"Before speaking about victims and to victims I need to listen. We all who are not victims need to listen. One of the points I make in Exclusion & Embrace is that in encounters with others a posture of non-understanding” is necessary. It seems paradoxical, but it is true. If I think I already understand the other and their behavior, I have intellectually closed myself to them and my image of them has become unresponsive to who they are and to who they want to tell me that they are. I am then ready to judge, to declare their behavior either as good or bad, to condemn or to praise it. My presumed understanding can easily then become a form of closing myself off to them, even a form of exclusion. Then even in my attempt to embrace them, I may exclude them because I do not understand them as they understand themselves. Even in my attempt to be in solidarity with them, I can betray them because I am not in solidarity with them as they understand solidarity and themselves in the need of solidarity. For this reason, my posture should not be one of offering perspectives on how they should engage in the struggle against injustice, deception, and violence to which they are exposed.”

It is natural to want to do, to try and figure out a strategy and tactic to fill the void of injustice.  I would offer that before acting, you talk to the oppressed.  Come from a place of non-understanding to achieve true understanding of who they are and what they want you to hear.  Ask the question to them instead of at them or about them.  Our tactic needs to be one of active curiosity.  Let their voices fill the void.  As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “...A riot is the voice of the unheard.  And what is it America has failed to hear?”  If we stop talking, ask questions about what to do and how to help, and listen, perhaps those most affected by the underlying systemic racism in this country can finally really be heard and we all can have an answer to Dr. King’s question.

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780