Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Parshat Vayeitzei - Reflecting on Ferguson: How Do We Know that G!d Is in this Place?

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob travels from Beersheba to Haran, and along the way he stops to sleep and has a dream about angels going up and down on a ladder that reaches to Heaven, with G!d standing above it. In his dream, G!d says to Jacob, “and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 28:14). G!d then tells Jacob “'And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and... I will not leave you...' And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, 'Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.'” (Gen. 28:15-16)
And it is true. Despite horrific traumas in Jewish history, we also  have been blessed, and we are blessed today in so many ways. Not only do we have Torah and tradition, but in today's world, many of us have wealth and education and good fortune as well. 
In light of all that has been happening this week in Ferguson, MO, this story about Jacob holds important messages for us. One is, how can we truly be blessed, when other members of our society are not being treated justly and fairly? How can we be blessed when the flip side of white privilege is racism and inequities in health and education and the criminal justice system? Or, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, "when one man is enslaved, all are not free." 
And in the spirit of our parashah, "G!d is in this place, but we do not know it." If we actually knew in our hearts that G!d was present, we would be meeting G!d half way, we would be speaking up and shouting out about injustice, white privilege, and racism. We would be doing all that we can to bring justice and peace into the world.
We can ask, How important is the answer to the question of exactly what happened that night this past summer when a black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer? Just how important is it whose story is accurate, that of Darren Wilson or those who say that he acted improperly? In certain ways, the answers are very important, but on some other level, they are not. What is important is that a black teen was shot and killed by a white police officer and the police officer was not indicted. What is important is to consider what we think would have happened if a black police officer had shot and killed a white youth. What is important is the real possibility that some part of Officer Wilson's fear that night – and the fears that so many of us white people have – in all probability stem from the fact that the youth he saw that night had dark skin.
What about the rest of us white folks - no matter what our religion? Are we ready to face our fears, our inner racism, our white privilege? Are we ready to see and acknowledge that racism is structural and institutional in this country? Are we ready to have hard conversations and really examine ourselves, our institutions, and our society? Are we ready to do the hard work of making real change happen?
If the answers to any of these questions are YES, then, in fact, we DO know that G!d is in this place, and we are indeed blessed, for a major way of experiencing blessing is having our eyes and our hearts opened to see hard truths and to respond to them with wisdom, compassion, and courage. A major way of experiencing G!d is through a sense of being commanded, pushed, called, driven, to work to fight injustice wherever its ugly head may pop up, for the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. are so true: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
And so, as we gather on this Thanksgiving Day, let us remember that for First Nation peoples, and rightfully so, this is a day of mourning and grief. Let us remember that injustice is alive and well in the United States of America. Let us remember that the reason we don't even notice our white privilege and our racism is that it is deeply embedded in our society and our institutions. But most of all, let us find "G!d in this place," and let us know and show that it is so, by our commitment, our dedication, and our courage.

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