Staring Into the Flames of Racism

The two colors of text reference the two voices delivering the sermon:
Rabbi Reines in black, Rabbi Mosbacher in blue

Before that day we still talk about, that day when Moses saw the burning bush, he likely had already walked past it, again and again. He just didn’t take notice. You see, at that time in his life, Moses was often lost within himself, rarely lifting his attention outwards beyond the needs of his flock. Four decades after fleeing city life for the ancient suburbs, he still sought solitude.

Moses grew up sheltered. His mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter, kept him inside most of the time. She made sure he had what he needed, and then some. There he was, living a cushy life in the palace, blissfully unaware of the sweat and servitude that had built his fancy home.

One day, on the brink of young adulthood, he ventured outside the palace gates, and suddenly slammed into oppression, right there, in his backyard. He watched in horror as an Egyptian taskmaster brutally attacked an Israelite slave. Something in him snapped, and he struck down the Egyptian.

Glimpsing the depravity of his world and frightened by his own violent impulses, with a mix of fury and shame, Moses fled to the desert, leaving the seclusion of the palace for the seclusion of the stark wilderness. Consciously or not, Moses sought escape from the world’s evil.

For many of us, Moses’ story is not so different from our own.

I was raised in an affluent, mostly white suburban neighborhood. And while I suppose I gradually became aware of the disparities between my life’s experience and those of black and brown people, that awareness all seemed distant until the night of my senior prom.

After the party, the other couples, my date and I headed to Chicago’s Second City comedy club. One after the other, high school seniors in tuxedos and ball gowns made it easily past the bouncer, along with a crush of other people trying to get in to the late show.

My date and I were behind my friend Brian and his girlfriend Donna. Like in a slow, hazy dream, I began to realize that the bouncer was giving Brian, a Black teenager, a hard time, and then he was raising his voice to Brian, and then he was asking him to turn out his pockets – something no one else was being asked to do. After a shuffle and a deeply uncomfortable few moments, the bouncer let us all in. But we were shaken by the way Brian had been treated, and decided to call it a night.

In the car on the way back home, as we animatedly and angrily talked about what had happened, increasingly righteously indignant, I noticed that Brian was completely silent, and looked on at us with some new distance.“Welcome to my life,” Brian said.

The rest of us were quiet.

That night, really for the first time, I began to realize the segregation I had been raised in, and my failure to see the privilege my white skin afforded me. I don’t think I had been willfully blind; I just hadn’t really stopped long enough to notice it before. I had been raised in the palace.

It was just an ordinary day when Moses encountered that burning bush. Like today’s twitter trends and media madness, that moment has been wildly dramatized in its retelling. The fact is, a small brush fire in the desert was no big deal. Shepherds and nomads used dried thickets as kindling, craving warmth in the desert nights. It wasn’t uncommon for embers to remain burning in desert shrubbery long after sunrise. There were fires burning all around.

My friends, there are still fires burning all around – fires of racism that have been burning for centuries. They have been burning so long that, it seems, they have become a part of the American landscape – something we have just come to accept as normal, especially for those of us who never seem to be burned by those racist flames.

On some level, we see these fires. We’ve learned about racism in school – the ⅗ compromise, slavery and Jim Crow, the lynching of Emmet Till. Some of us remember the vicious attack at Selma, the Watts Rebellion. We see racism on our screens – viral videos of black men, black women, black teens, black children, murdered by white supremacists, by vigilantes, by police, who are then excused by the law. We see racism in our cities – we know that people of color are convicted of crimes, dying of COVID, dying in childbirth, attending overcrowded and underfunded schools, losing homes to natural disasters, all at a much greater rate than white Americans.

We learn, we see, we know. And we care. But how much? We have the luxury, like Moses, of walking by. As civil rights lawyer, Valarie Kaur, writes, “We can have all the empathy in the world for a group of people, and still participate in the structures and systems that oppress them.”1 We who are white have the privilege of expressing rage, and then withdrawing into our own normalcy.

My friend Brian didn’t have that option. And kids like him won’t have a chance at it – unless we do the excruciatingly hard work of standing still and not turning away.

If we who are white are brutally honest with ourselves on this holy day, this day of repentance, this day when we remove our masks and confront our biases, we will recognize that we have been on the luckier side of societal inequities, based not on the content of our character, but solely on the color of our skin.

What was different on that day that changed everything, wasn’t the fire. What was different that day, was Moses. For some reason, something in Moses compelled him to stop, turn, and look – really look – with genuine curiosity and a desire to understand what was happening. Because the only way to notice the bush was burning without being consumed was to take time and pay attention. Only after pausing with purpose, did Moses hear God’s voice calling to him, directing him on the long road toward justice.

These last months have seen the largest protest movement with the broadest geographic spread in our nation’s history. Many millions of people took to the streets to protest systemic racism. And, compared to the civil rights protests of the 60s, a larger number of those protestors were white.2 Sports leagues, celebrities, politicians, CEOs – people in power – are stopping to notice, stopping to raise their voices, stopping to affirm that Black Lives Matter.

But for this moment of awareness to be transformed into a movement for justice that we are active participants in, we must know that this is about even more than a knee on George Floyd’s neck. We must pay attention to the fact that that this fire has not only been burning for centuries, but that it was started by human beings who sought to subjugate Black human beings they deemed to be a lower caste, and that it has been tended and fanned by the dominant caste to their immeasurable advantage.

Staring into the flames of institutional racism, many of us are beginning to comprehend that the fires of slavery, a fire that powered the most powerful economy in the world for 246 years, didn’t stop raging with the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865. For freed slaves – without homes, education or employment – June 20, 1865 didn’t bring radical change.

While it became illegal that day to literally own another human being, white Americans continued to profit off of black people’s oppression. The embers of slavery still burned. Black laws, intentionally designed to maintain the dehumanization of Black people for cheap labor, criminalized actions and situations that didn’t apply to white people, like vagrancy and unemployment. White business owners paid jails for imprisoned Black men to construct railways, work in mines and tend plantations. Black men’s sweat fed an economy that didn’t feed them.

And the embers of slavery ignited other fires. Jim Crow laws legitimizing segregation for a century, voter suppression that continues to this day, economic and educational discrimination that continues to limit the advancement of people of color, and a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes the black body – all were lit from the sparks of a fire that was never truly extinguished. And all those sparks were intentionally fanned into a systemic racism that continues to function exactly as designed.

As a nation, we are finally turning towards these flames. As individuals, some of you have spoken with us about your discomfort and shame in suddenly realizing that you have been walking segregated paths – living in a city diverse in statistics but not in reality. Your rabbis are staring into the fire right alongside you, examining our lives with a new lens.

I am realizing that I’ve walked past fires for my whole life without seeing them. As a child I didn’t see how my Crayola crayon labeled “flesh” only reflected the color of my skin. On Martin Luther King Day, when my schoolmates and I linked arms and swayed, belting “We Shall Overcome,” I didn’t see that so few students in the room looked like the man we were honoring. Just a few months ago, it needed to be pointed out to me that it is historically inaccurate and racist to regard the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment as a celebration of American Women’s right to vote. Black women, Latina women, Indigenous women, most Asian women, were denied that right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – recent history.

Which fires do we notice, and which do we willfully ignore? And which do we fan ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly? We might be aware of stark racial divides in the landscapes of our lives, but will we stop and ask ourselves why there aren’t more people of color living in our neighborhood and attending our children’s schools?

And, lest we think that our failure to see is only external, outside the Jewish community, Reform Jew of color, Marra Gad, recently wrote about her experience at our Reform Movement’s Biennial conference where she was a presenter. When she went to pick up her nametag, she was told “Sorry. The real Marra Gad needs to pick up her badge.” And when she replied she was the “real” Marra Gad, she didn’t receive an apology. Instead, the person behind the desk responded, “Really!?” Pained, Marra, a Reform Jew from birth, a URJ camp kid that my wife Elyssa and I went to camp with, a youth group alumna, a Reform synagogue and movement lay leader, was later stopped by Reform Jews sitting at a Shabbat dinner table at Biennial. They asked her, “Excuse me, can you please bring us more coffee?”

Demographers tell us that 10-15% of the Jewish community consists of people of color. Will we ask honestly why more Jews of color aren’t joining our synagogue?

Yes, on that day when Moses turned to see, he looked long and hard into that fire. He didn’t move away. According to Midrash, Moses stands in front of that fire for a week, eyebrows singed by the heat of its flames, feet burning from the hot desert sand.3 He stands in discomfort, even in some pain… but still, when God tells him to act, he demurs.

Instead of immediately heeding God’s call to act as an agent of freedom, Moses asks God, “Who am I to speak truth to power?4
He asks God, “what if it’s harder that I thought it might be?5
He says to God, “Please. Choose someone else.6

You might be asking questions like Moses did. Your rabbis certainly are:

Now that the marches of this past summer are ending, am I gonna stick with this?

How much am I willing to give up for a fight I’m not even sure we can win?

How much of a difference can I even make? There are plenty of people out there more powerful than me.

Just like Moses, we might stop here – looking at the fire but not taking the next step. What ultimately gives Moses the courage to face Pharaoh? When God says, “Moses, you won’t be alone. Aaron will go with you.7

We will have greater courage, greater stamina, greater persistence and impact if we do this together. Together, we can withstand the discomfort and shame that will come with staring into a fire of American racism that has been burning for 400 years. Together, we can help each other notice when we feel defensive, get distracted, start doubting. Together with each other, with Jews of color, and with other communities of color, like some partners in our community organizing network, Metro IAF, we can be a part of extinguishing the flames.

We will begin this afternoon at 2:15pm when Rabbi Reines and I have a public conversation with Reverend David Brawley of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, a partner in our work at Metro IAF. We will reflect on this sermon, and on his community’s lived experience, and as we explore how we deepen our relationships, community to community.

We are also going to prepare for action by offering a two-part training laying the groundwork for learning and reflection, run by Be’chol Lashon. This organization raises awareness about the diversity of Jewish identity and experience, and brings the historic Jewish commitment to racial justice forward into the 21st century. These training sessions will be held on Monday evenings, October 19 and 26. Look for more information in the Weekly and, soon, on our website.

We will follow these opportunities with ongoing invitations for further exploration and growth. But first and foremost, make a plan to vote, be sure to be counted for the Census, and remind anyone and everyone to do the same. These easy and immediate actions also carry significant racial implications.

Ultimately, Moses couldn’t run away from that empathetic part of himself, which bound his soul to God. The Torah text teaches “vayar Moshe – Moses saw the bush.8 Then Moses turns and draws closer to its heat, saying, “v’ehreh – I will continue to look deeply.9 Only then, does God call to him, “Raoh, raiti – I’ve seen – I’ve really seen – the pain of the Israelites and heard their cry!10

Notably, there is linguistic play on the Hebrew words describing Moses’ two professions. Moses, Roeh11, the shepherd of flocks, Moses Roeh12, the prophet of a people, a Seer. Moses became the seer of truth, of his privilege, of injustice and of his role in addressing it. Now Moses, like God, sees the Israelites’ pain, with all its intensity. And as the Biblical scholar, Avivah Zornberg insights, “To be able to see pain is an extremely important dimension of what makes redemption possible.”13

We see the pain. We can help bring redemption.

The protests have died down. Major media has shifted their focus. But God is calling to us. God sees our empathy. This is the time for us to follow the way of Moses who, at age 80, answered that call.

We know the dangers of ravenous fires left unextinguished. Now is the time to open our eyes, to stop looking away. Now is the time for us to change our world. Let’s become Seers together.

End Notes

    1. See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love
    2. White Americans are finally talking about racism. Will it translate into action?
    3. Midrash Tanchuma, Chayei Sara 6
    4. Exodus 3:11
    5. Exodus 4:1
    6. Exodus 4:13
    7. Exodus 4:14
    8. Exodus 3:2
    9. Exodus 3:3
    10. Exodus 3:7
    11. רואה
    12. רואה
    13. Aviva Zornberg – The Transformation of Pharaoh, Moses, and God