The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The essence of Jewish religious thinking does not lie in entertaining a concept of God but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination by God’s presence. Israel is not a people of definers but a people of witnesses.” We are not defined by what we believe but by what we have seen - what we have witnessed. In other words, the Jewish people are a people of shared moments, of shared memories. This is why Jews with all kinds of different beliefs can wish one another a Shabbat Shalom, celebrate holidays together, and feel connected regardless of how different we may be. We may not agree on what happened, how it happened, why it happened, when it happened, or if it happened, but our common stories and the way in which we celebrate and commemorate them define our peoplehood.
As we’ve witnessed the events of the past weekend, recognizing the tragic deaths that led to them as well, we have been reminded that there are memories and stories we may not share that have the potential to make another’s experience more difficult for us to understand. After the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, I spoke from this bima, reminding our congregation that while our history is one of oppression, our present is a very different one. While we understand being stereotyped, most of us do not know what it’s like to have immediate judgment constantly placed on us solely because of the color of our skin. I also shared that most of us do not know what it’s like to be a police officer, constantly putting our lives on the line, walking into unknown situations of risk. To make this solely about the police is a mistake. We are extremely grateful to the men and women who risk their lives daily to keep us and all of our neighbors safe.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote, “Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life... Racism is total estrangement. It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits. Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual and physical homicide upon the out-group.”
Rabbi Heschel, who I quoted earlier, was born in Poland in 1907 and was teaching in Germany in the 1930s. Rabbi Heschel was a witness to the horrific homicide that racism can inflict. He was saved from Nazi Europe by the Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical School from which I received my ordination thirteen years ago today, and when Dr. King marched in Selma 55 years ago, Rabbi Heschel was immediately to his right. Rabbi Heschel risked so much to stand by Dr. King numerous times because he knew the Torah commands us to love the stranger, to sacrifice our own comfort for those in need, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah commands us to see our story in the story of all who are oppressed, and Rabbi Heschel could not be witness to another’s oppression and stand idly by. We are witnesses to today’s story, and the story future generations will tell about us is determined by the way in which we react to them.
You may remember a few months ago City Councilman Orlando Gudes was in the news for using the word “Jewed” when referring to a financial negotiation. Congregant and current president of Federation, Joe Probasco, and I arranged a meeting with City Councilman Gudes. We knew that the city councilman understood he shouldn’t have used the term, and we wanted to explain why. He did not know that the context in which he used the term was an example of the normalization of a stereotype of Jewish people that allowed for 33% of Germany to support Hitler, placing blame for their situation on the Jewish people, and allowed for so many others to turn a blind eye to the atrocities that ensued. Stereotypes and bias can translate to action, or inaction, and as I shared my family’s story, he saw similarities between Jews and People of Color in a way he never had before; as he shared his story of growing up in Tampa as an African American, the way stereotypes and bias impacted him and his family, his 26 years in the Tampa police force, we were reminded of the importance of continuing conversations and relationships that were built decades ago. We are committed to having those conversations and strengthening those relationships today. We are committed to ensuring that our neighbors, our community members, our friends, our family are not strangers.
Yesterday afternoon Cantor Cannizzaro and I attended and participated in an interfaith prayer vigil downtown. We were joined not only by members of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clergy, but also our Mayor, Jane Castor, State Attorney and congregant, Andrew Warren, City Councilman Gudes, and many members of the police force, standing before a community representing all faiths, colors, and backgrounds in peaceful mourning for George Floyd and too many before him. As all forms of rioting, violence, and destruction were denounced, the importance of all voices being heard was affirmed; we all joined together in prayers of peace as our Tampa community strives to move forward from the events of the past weekend in unity and in peace.
As part of the vigil, Cantor and I joined together in singing the first line of Sim Shalom, the daily morning prayer in which we ask God to grant peace, goodness, blessing, grace, kindness, and mercy upon us and the entire world. As I shared with those gathered, I think the prayer has the order wrong. In order to achieve God’s blessing of goodness and peace, we must all look inside and find the grace, kindness, and mercy that comes from seeing the other’s story in our own.
As we join together in prayer for mercy, kindness, and grace, we acknowledge that prayer alone is not enough. We commit ourselves to loving life and seeing all of God’s creation as equal. We commit ourselves to withholding judgment until we know one’s story, and we commit ourselves to learning the stories of those whose experiences are different from our own.
May the blessing that comes from understanding lead us to see the goodness that is around us, and may the story we write be one in which we use the adversity currently present in our world as inspiration to work together to build a world of peace.