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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - “I Can’t Breathe”

June 5, 2020
14 Sivan 5780
Loss and fear and anger—those emotions have flowed through so many of us these last months.  The losses are all around us: the 110,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, often without their loved ones by their sides; the chance to hold and to hug; the B’nai Mitzvah and graduation ceremonies; the joy and the sorrow; so many jobs.  We can hold a heart in some way, but we cannot hold a hand.  I sense fear around us:  the fear of illness and of whatever else this virus may be infecting; the fear that we are each of us in this by ourselves and, thus, a growing fear of the other.  And I feel anger and frustration connected to that fear, in particular of our federal government as it veers from the very foundations and institutions of our democratic values with voices that divide us rather than unite us.
Now compound those feelings exponentially.  Take these words written on a sign held by a masked young woman kneeling in front of the Brookfield Public Library:  “If you think your mask makes it hard to breathe, imagine being black in America.”  Yes, her words could refer to the coronavirus which, as we all know, afflicts those in the African-American community and in other American communities of color and immigrant communities and the native American community and the LatinX community at much higher rates.  But the words on her sign were a clear and profound reference to George Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” as his breath was literally and tragically taken from him by four police officers in Minneapolis.  And, for every name we know—Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Frank Jude and Emmett Till—there are thousands upon thousands of names we do not know.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his son, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body.”  Remember that young woman’s sign.

Loss, fear, anger, exhaustion—and yet, still, hope and uplift.  As we read from Torah this week, we are told to count our ancestors in the wilderness.  But the words used to describe the count are “naso et rosh.” While the new Jewish Publication Society translates the words as “take a census,” the words literally mean “lift up every head.”  In the end, it is not about counting people; it is all about ensuring that each and every person counts.  You cannot move ahead on your own; you must carry every individual with you.  Only by elevating the individuality and intrinsic value of each human being can the census--the sum--of the whole group become meaningful.  And, once we forget that each individual is unique, that each one of us is a child of God, the group can no longer be raised up. 
And that has been America’s challenge from the beginning, be it 1619 or 1654 or 1776 or 1865 or 1941 or 1964 or 2020.  What words could be more basic to this American experiment that these, a country where “all…are created equal…with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as “we, the people” seek “to form a more perfect Union.”  And through all those years where we did not and do not lift every head and every voice, black voices never stopped reminding us of that Biblical and American promise.  It was James Weldon Johnson who, as principal of a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, penned a poem in 1900 to welcome a visit from Booker T. Washington on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  Johnson went on to become the president of the NAACP.  And his words, later put to song by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, were these:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

May our hands and our feet answer our prayers.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Marc E. Berkson 

Thu, December 3 2020 17 Kislev 5781