Finding Our Fergusons: An Opportunity to Do Something Extraordinary
Standing on the steps of the Old Court House in St. Louis the night before Michael Brown’s funeral, we stopped marching and chanting, and instead prayed quietly for his family and the families of so many black men who have been shot by police.
In that very place where Dred Scott sued for his freedom and was denied his citizenship in 1857, we remembered that the next morning, Michael would not be a cause, but the son of a family who would have to bury their child.
We stood in silence, feeling the legacy of slavery and wondering if the exposure of the disparities of Ferguson had to happen here to redeem the shame of that decision so many generations ago.
Standing with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy, I thought of the story of Abraham, Sara, and Hagar, which taught that if we were willing to sacrifice the child of Hagar (Ha-ger meaning “the other” in Hebrew), we would soon find ourselves sacrificing our own children.
Michael Brown’s death touched the nerve across racial geographic and economic divides, sending the message that a threat to our children anywhere is a threat to our children everywhere. It was time to do more than talk.
At a community service, where I was asked to give a prayer for the Brown family, I offered the story of Nachshon at the Red Sea. Weary of listening to Moses pray for God’s assistance, Nachshon jumped into the sea to part the waters that would open the road to freedom. What really parted the waters, though, was all the others who jumped in to save him – not just those who knew him, but all of the people risking their lives for that one child.
We have been living under the illusion of separation in America: two Americas, two St. Louises, two Fergusons. We are divided by gender, race, and class. Driving while black, shopping while black, just walking in the street while black, is a crime across the country. It will take all of us to change this culture, to challenge racial profiling and the poison of racism and economic disparities.
And there is but one fragile degree of separation between us.
One Shabbat afternoon, I marched in Ferguson with a tall, black 16-year-old who lives in town and celebrated his bar mitzvah and confirmation at our synagogue. As we marched together, I heard a shout from a white, ex-Marine, St. Louis police officer. For a moment I thought, “What have I done?”
“Rabbi Talve! Don’t you remember me? You did my bar mitzvah!”
There I was, marching between two men who shared common ground in Torah, one a kid of color who just wants to get back to school and the other a police officer whose job is to keep him safe. These relationships blur the lines of separation and will eventually help us change the culture of profiling and militarized policing.
Every week, Torah has guided us. The Shabbat of the shooting, Va-et’chanan, we read about Moses pleading to enter the land of Israel. “Rav lach, It’s plenty for you, enough already!” God tells Moses; don’t think about what you don’t have but what you do have, for it is enough. In the land, there will be enough for everyone if we remember to “Sh’ma,” to listen to unity within diversity.
Just as Moses readied us to turn leadership over to Joshua and the next generation, so did we in Ferguson support the black youth who shaped the protest. They emerged to keep peace on the streets, doing their best to keep us safe at the protests by directing traffic and giving out water – and now they are focused on registering everyone to vote. They have been awakened, and we pray their empowerment will bring change.
The next week, parashah Eikev warned that when we enter the land, we will depend too much on her plenty, forgetting that true satisfaction comes from within and that the way to peace is through gratitude and service to others. The text worries that the wheat, barley, pomegranates, figs, olive oil, and date honey will spoil us, but rather than deny us these wonderful delights, the answer is to bless them. Without the blessing – without remembering they all come from a unity of which we are a part but only a part – there is no chance for the ultimate “savata,” filling up inside so that we are ready to overflow love, kindness, and compassion. We learn we can be satisfied without being complacent.
Eikev is a strange term. It can mean “when” but comes from the root for “heel,” suggesting that something is coming soon. Torah teaches that we may be the generation on the heels of the messiah, who brings the age of peace. Everything we do matters, even the little things we don’t think are important – the things that fall under our heels. Showing up to be one more body to march, to bring food, to read to the children in the library.
We vowed on that Shabbat that we would go to Ferguson to frequent businesses that have been struggling through the riots. One congregant, who is in a wheelchair, said she couldn’t march but could eat each lunch at a restaurant struggling to stay open. Another woman got her hair cut at a salon in Ferguson and was their only customer that day. These acts matter; they may tip the scales. The teachings of Torah pushed us out of the synagogue and our comfort zones, to pray with our legs.
And we were ready for the next Torah portion, R’eih, which challenged us to see without vision obscured by false assumptions, stereotypes, and beliefs – to see that we can choose the blessing over the curse. In St. Louis, the truth has been stripped bare, and we are seeing beyond the illusions of the worlds of separation. We are being called to experience the world of unity, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, the radical monism where we realize that the world of separation abides within the world of unity.
Then we remember that these children being profiled and endangered by the ravages of poverty and discrimination are – all of them – our children. And we realize we all have an opportunity to do something extraordinary with this challenge.
As we pray for a just trial, the Torah portion is Shoftim, the call to appoint judges who will deal fairly with all people. We meet the words “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” We are reminded that there must not be two Fergusons – or two Americas – any longer.
We will continue to take on the challenge of racism and anti-Semitism and all the -ism’s that plague us – and be part of the solution. We will seize the opportunity to pass legislation to stop racial profiling, to train police, to control guns and welcome immigrants, to raise the minimum wage and provide jobs and job training and do all the things we know we must do to heal the divide.
We here in St. Louis challenge all of America to find your Ferguson. Find that sleepy suburb ready to erupt, and jump in together – to save all our children.