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Catastrophe in America: Racism, Violence, & Tishah B'Av

Catastrophe in America: Racism, Violence, & Tishah B'Av

I had a friend in college named Ray. He was a good guy. He had a lot of the qualities I thought I lacked when I was in college. Ray was good looking, athletic and charismatic. He was a running back on the school's football team. He loved to hang around with attractive women, and they seemed to love hanging around him, too. 

Ray also was smart and had a good heart. He and I were allies in student government. We worked together on a campaign to get our school to divest from companies that did business in South Africa. It was a strategy to put pressure on a racist, apartheid government that kept black-skinned and mixed-raced Africans in second-class status and made their lives miserable.

I was very proud of the work that I did with Ray and many others in college. We were a small part of the anti-apartheid movement, but we made a difference. I was proud also of my friendship with Ray, a guy who was very different from me, and also very much the same.

Why am I remembering Raynard T. Davis, Oberlin College class of 1985, today? Because he was murdered in April of 1999 in his hometown of Washington, D.C. He was then, like me at the time, 32 years old. He was stabbed in his apartment by some men who had come to talk to him about the car he was trying to sell. 

Ray was one of hundreds of black men murdered in Washington during the period from 1998 to 2008. During that decade, the murder rate for black people in our nation's capital was more than 50 per 100,000 residents, ten times the rate for white residents. In the years since, the murder rate for black men in Washington has improved greatly, as it has for people of all races and genders. Yet - there is no nice way to put this - it is still dangerous to be a young black man in America. 

Of course, I also am thinking about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was fatally shot 17 months ago by George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL, less than a 2.5-hour drive from my home. Zimmerman was acquitted two days ago on all charges. 

There is a great deal of difference between Martin and my friend, Ray. Trayvon Martin was in high school. Ray Davis was a promising graduate student at Howard University. Trayvon was killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator who may have believed that he was trying to protect his community. Ray was killed by a couple of guys who wanted to get the small clutch of bills in his wallet. Lots of differences, but also very much the same. 

There is a catastrophe in our country built on lingering racism, a growing appetite for guns and violence, and the way that the lives of young black men are devalued. I don't really know what happened on the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, FL (and neither do you). However, I don't need to tell you how differently the verdict would have been if a young black man claimed to have acted in self-defense when he killed a neighborhood watch volunteer. Do I?

Today, I am also thinking about Tishah B'Av, the holy day that began today at sunset. This is a day for mourning the catastrophe of our broken world. On Tishah B'Av, we weep for the shattering of the link between heaven and earth and how our world is so painfully far from what we would wish for ourselves and for our children. Today, as I remember my friend, and as I think about recent events, I feel heartsick.

There is a tradition of concluding the meal on the afternoon before Tishah B'Av with a hard-boiled egg dipped in ashes. The ashes recall the mourning of our ancestors as they watched the holy city of Jerusalem and its Temple burn. The egg itself, though, is a symbol of two things. Because eggs become harder when cooked, they remind us that our sorrows should toughen us to face the challenges of tomorrow. The egg's shape reminds us that life turns in many cycles - hope may yet be born from sorrow. 

I have eaten my egg dipped in ashes. I am ready for the fast to begin. I also am ready to hope that the cycles of hatred, violence, and cold-heartedness may be overcome. I am stiffening my resolve today to do my part to make a difference.

Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Cranston, RI; he previously served Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, FL. He blogs at Reb Jeff.

Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser
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