I offer these words on the murder of George Floyd as a “d’varTorah” – words of Torah, in the broadest sense of the word. Torah is not only what’s in the scrolls in the synagogue, though I will draw on them. Torah is also life, our lives today, which, like what’s written in the scrolls, cry out ‘darsheini’ – explain me, interpret me, dig deep. The African–American Christian preaching we heard at Floyd’s memorial service and funeral also drew both on our shared sacred texts and our lived experiences, in the effort to bring comfort and find meaning.
I was moved by the preaching of Rev. Al Sharpton at the memorial in Minneapolis. I know Sharpton is a problematic figure for many in the Jewish community. I acknowledge this, but also want to dispose of it for the moment and talk about his preaching.
[Sharpton] spoke not only about Floyd’s death but about death itself, about his belief in a world beyond this one, where justice and peace already exist, a place where the wicked have no power.
Sharpton used the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes – “There is a season and a time for every purpose … ” urgently charging listeners that now is the time to address meaningfully and courageously both racism and police practice. He spoke not only about Floyd’s death but about death itself, about his belief in a world beyond this one, where justice and peace already exist, a place where the wicked have no power. “Go on home, George”, he said; “Get some rest, George;” words spoken with love and anguish, offering a pathway from the horror of Floyd’s murder, to an exquisite and eternal peace that we on earth can only imagine.
Sharpton’s sermon went from real time to the timeless and eternal nature of God. By the end he was shouting the words God is, God has, God shall. It was powerful; he had me. These words are part of the Hebrew hymn Adon Olam, a hymn sung at the conclusion of Shabbat services; v’hu haya, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihiyeh – He was, He is, He shall be. Jews who join in Shabbat communal prayer sing those words regularly but I’m not sure we feel the words as an urgent statement of faith that could bring great comfort, especially when this world seems so broken.
By the end he was shouting the words God is, God has, God shall. It was powerful; he had me.
Like many of you I’ve been going over in my mind the scene of George Floyd’s killing, wondering what I might have done had I been among the onlookers. I’ve been fixated on the two rookie cops sitting on Floyd’s back and knees. Why didn’t they stand up and say, “This is wrong, I won’t be part of this”? If I’m honest with myself I can imagine a partial answer. While I think of myself as strong and courageous, I know there have been times when I’ve chosen, whether out of fear or uncertainty, to not question the chain of command (though not with catastrophic consequences like here). It takes role models, experience and maturity to find one’s voice and use it. It has taken me years to find mine, and I’m still a work in progress.
The scene of Floyd’s dying brings me back to the scene of Joseph and his brothers when Joseph was nearly murdered. People love to say of the young Joseph, “He was spoiled, clueless, and arrogant.” But his flaws pale next to the murderous actions of his brothers.
Yet those ten brothers were not a monolith. The original plan was to murder Joseph and throw the body in a pit. But oldest brother Ruben intervened, saying, “Don’t kill him, throw him in this pit alive, so we won’t have blood on our own hands.” Hard to know why he didn’t simply stand up and say, “Don’t do this, it’s wrong.” Nonetheless his intervention saved Joseph’s life. He accomplished what we are hearing from parents of Black children, who teach them, “Your job is to survive the encounter. Do whatever you have to do to survive the encounter.”
Then we hear from Judah. Joseph is crying out from the pit when a caravan is passing by, and Judah gets the idea, “Let’s not leave him to die, let’s sell him. After all he is our brother, our flesh and blood.” His words are often interpreted as morally flimsy; I hear in them a spark of moral awakening. And some courage: he dares say to a mob bent on murder, that the intended victim is a human being and their brother. “We are connected,” he seems to realize. Selling Joseph was an imperfect intervention, but the result was that Joseph survived. Maybe there is a hint of divine help in Judah’s awakening – after all not one but two caravans just happened to come by.
[Judah’s] words are often interpreted as morally flimsy; I hear in them a spark of moral awakening. And some courage: he dares say to a mob bent on murder, that the intended victim is a human being and their brother.
One of the preachers at Floyd’s memorial services referred back to this very story, quoting Joseph’s words to his brothers later in life: “You meant to do me harm, but God has used this for good.” The preacher continued, “God doesn’t make everything happen, but God knows how to use what happens.” This is just how Joseph evaluated his own suffering, which ultimately brought about good for his entire clan. The preacher at Floyd’s funeral carefully expressed a similar sentiment: Floyd’s killing was a very bad thing, but what God does with it, what we do with it, need not be.
I’m grateful to have been brought into the world of these African American Christian preachers these past few weeks. I will appreciate Adon Olam more now. And I share with them a passion for our timeless stories, mirroring as they do aspects of our own realities: the dynamics among the brothers, the hierarchies, the hatreds, the naïve but perhaps genuine yearning on Joseph’s part to be one with his family; Judah and Ruben, who despite growing up with some violent brothers still had the flame of humanity alive in them, and were able, however imperfectly, to raise their voices and save a life.
Violence and hatreds persist; in every generation we are called upon anew to stand up to bullies, to listen, and to develop the skills and the courage to raise our voices.
Violence and hatreds persist; in every generation we are called upon anew to stand up to bullies, to listen, and to develop the skills and the courage to raise our voices. We each must work hard to recognize the humanity in each other, so that when conflict arises, no one has to die in order that what God intends for good can come about.
These words by Rabbi Shosh Dworsky, Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at St. Olaf College, were originally delivered at Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN. Rabbi Dworsky’s position at St. Olaf is funded by The Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community, and the open-hearted interaction she models between Jewish Torah study and Black Christian preaching in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death embodies the kind of interfaith engagement the Center hopes to foster at St. Olaf and beyond.
Used with permission from The Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN.
Rabbi Shosh Dworsky is the Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at St. Olaf College and the Associate Chaplain for Jewish and Interfaith Life at Carleton College.
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