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Just Beyond Yourself

Just Beyond Yourself Shabbat Naso 5780 Rabbi Ilana C. Garber

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. And too many more. All of them, zichronam livracha, of blessed memory. We must say their names. We must lift them up. We cannot stand idly by.

My friends, this is one of my final addresses to you as a rabbi of this synagogue, and the words I want you to hear are these, from poet David Whyte: Just beyond yourself. It’s where you need to be.

The past few months have brought us all just beyond ourselves, out of our comfort zones and into the confines of our homes. As the pandemic hit, we stocked up on bread and toilet paper, settled into routines of homeschooling and remote work. We taped paper hearts to our front doors to thank nurses, doctors, and mail carriers, and went out of our way to help our neighbors and friends. 

And then, as so often happens, we got used to it. The shock wore off. The anger too. And we are adjusting to a new normal, hopeful that one day we can return to the days of old, chadesh yamenu k’kedem, renew us, restore us to how things were before.

But my friends, we cannot go back to the way things were. We cannot return to normal if that return means we keep killing our black brothers and sisters. The “getting used to it” that happened with staying home during the pandemic cannot be the same “getting used to it” toward the systemic racism in our country. 

Now, I know it wasn’t you or me that forced our knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes. I know we didn’t pursue Ahmaud Arbery. None of us were the judge who signed the warrant or the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. Yet, we were bystanders to their deaths because we didn't do enough. We didn't do enough to keep our black brothers and sisters, our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens, safe and alive.

As Dahleen Glanton wrote in an Op-Ed this week, addressing White America, “if you want to know who’s responsible for racism, look in the mirror. America,” she writes, “cannot rid itself of this curse [of racism] unless white people accept responsibility for it.” And she suggests that “it would be wonderful if white people took to the streets like you did during the 2017 Women’s March, only this time...chanting, ‘We’re mad…, and we’re not going to tolerate racism anymore’.”

Let’s face it, we are a country in pain, torn apart by racism and hatred. Looting, police brutality, a pandemic, and twitter wars. We are broken. We are sick. We need to heal. We need shalom, peace, and shleimut, wholeness. And we need holiness. 

We are in desperate need of sound, responsible leadership. It’s not enough to hold an unopened Bible outside a church. Torah is not a prop. Torah is what propels us to do more.

This week’s portion includes a 3-fold blessing known as the priestly blessing. It consists of 3 lines, the first line has just 3 words, the next line has 5 words, and the last line has 7 words. That’s an important image - 3, 5, 7, each one a bit bigger - we’ll come back to that idea in a moment. Leonard Nimoy, of blessed memory, recalled the hand gesture made by the kohanim, the priests, in his childhood synagogue. And so he created the Vulcan salute, with its special spoken blessing “live long and prosper”. In fact, those words are exactly the essence of the words in our portion.

Yevarakhekha Adonai v’yishmerekha

May God bless you and protect you!

Ya’er Adonai panav elekha vichunekha

May God cause God’s face to shine upon you, and may God be good to you.

Yisa Adonai panav elekha v’yasem l’kha shalom

May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

You have likely recited or heard this prayer before. Parents offer it to their children on Friday nights before Shabbat dinner begins, or at their child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah or wedding. Rabbis offer it too. And some traditional synagogues chant this out loud, with Kohanim present participating and serving as transmitters of the blessing.

So, how can Torah propel us to do more? And how can the priestly blessing offer us a step toward peace?

I believe it’s in the structure of the lines: 3 words - 5 words - 7 words. It’s a ladder of ascent, to be sure, each line getting bigger, stronger, and more powerful. But unlike our usual statement that less is more, in this case we see that more is actually more. 

Take the first word of each line: Y’varekhekha (bless), Ya’er (shine), Yisa (lift). Bless, shine, lift. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, the Torah teaches, and we know that means we can’t just send thoughts and prayers (y’varekhekha). We can’t just shine light on a situation (ya’er) by talking about it on social media. Yes, both are important, but as more is more, as our 3-fold blessing evolves, as Torah propels us, we need to show that every person counts. We need to lift up our brothers and sisters. We need to see them, to hear them, to say their names. We need to walk alongside them, to take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In the week of the Torah portion Naso, lift up the heads of the people to count them, to show them that they count. Now is the time for that third line, for Yisa, lift. We need to lift up all of God’s creations.

How do we achieve peace? We do more. We need it all, the power of community, the voices of dissent, the votes to end the worst error in American history. And, we need every single person.

We need to pray with our feet, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, zichrono livracha, did when he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma. Go to the protests, peacefully, wearing a mask, carrying a sign, offering your voice and your presence. 

We need to vote. As Stacey Abrams wrote in the NY Times this week, “Voting will not save us from harm, but silence will surely damn us all.”

We need to go just beyond ourselves, because it’s where our country needs us to be. Ask yourself: have I really done enough to be an ally of the black community? What can I, as a white person in America, do to help our country change? As Jews, we have a moral and ethical responsibility not only to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor” but also, v’ahavta l’ray’akha kamocha, "to love our neighbors as ourselves."

As our own Rabbi Kessler, zichrono livracha, who also marched with Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King, said when he spoke at a black Baptist church: “We have to remember we were a slave people, and because of that have to be sensitive to slavery of any kind at any time and against any people.”

Naso, lift up and show our black brothers and sisters they count.

Y’varekhekha - bless, Ya’er - shine, Yisa - lift.

We lift each other up, we count each and every person, knowing that each and every person counts. We go just beyond ourselves because it’s where we need to be. We lift each other up, so that we might all live long and prosper.