I’m finding that many of my email exchanges are ending with sign-off’s like, “I hope you’re still breathing.” “Sending you breath.”
Sending you breath.
These words are well intentioned, of course– I’ve written them myself. And there’s something that twists in me when I see these words. ”Keep breathing.”
Something we’re all too conscious of right now is that for millions and millions of Black Americans, that breath – that soul connection to God and to one another, that breath that connects us to the first human being, Adam, who is all of our common parent – that breath, cannot be taken for granted, and is, far too often, taken. Why should I get the gift of breath, the spaciousness of feeling free to breathe, when that wasn’t given to George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, or Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Laquan McDonald. Why should I get the gift of breath when there are thousands of people in the streets right now, using their breath to protest for right of our family members, congregants, and neighbors, to breathe?
My friend Rabbi Rachel Kobrin said last week that she waited a long time to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder – not because she didn’t have time, but because she’s sensitive. She knew she wouldn’t be able to get the image or the sound out of her mind. And she said after watching it, that every white american has to watch it. Because if you don’t you don’t know what kind of brutality the State enacts upon its own citizens, you don’t know the kind of terror that people of color walk around with every single day, unnecessary and inhumane force that is visited upon them in every city in America – by people whose jobs are to protect people and keep them safe.
And as long as you don’t know what this profound unfairness looks like – you can breathe, you can do other things, focus on other issues, join a book group, read an article, feel virtuous and newly woke. But once you get it, you get why the legacy of white supremacy is all of our work to dismantle. You get why there is this impatience, a relentless energy in this moment toward this dismantling. You get why at the end of Jewish prayers we say “Bimheirah b’yameinu – may this happen, soon, in our day.” It’s been for too long that too many people can’t breathe.
And it’s hard: Tre Johnson, a Black writer in Philadelphia, wrote this week: “The confusing, perhaps contradictory advice on what White people should do probably feels maddening. To be told to step up, no step back, read, no listen, protest, don’t protest, check on Black friends, leave us alone, ask for help or do the work — it probably feels contradictory at times. And yet, you’ll figure it out. Black people have been similarly exhausted making the case for jobs, freedom, happiness, justice, equality and the like. It’s made us dizzy, but we’ve managed to find the means to walk straight.”
You’ll figure it out. Breathing will help.
Friday night is when Jews come together to breathe. U’vaYom Ha’Shvi’i, shavat vayinafash… And on the 7th day God rested. If God, in her infinite, creator-ness of the universe could rest, than we, breathless and impatient though we may be feeling in these days must remember to breathe. For the sake of your spirit, for the sake of your sanity, for the sake of the movement. As one of you said to me this week, the revolution needs rest too.
Dismantling a culture doesn’t happen overnight – that’s true in changing organizational culture, and it’s even more true when talking about changing American culture that was built from the ground up on the basis of the supremacy of White people over everyone else. There must be massive reordering of resources – reshuffling of budget dollars to support care instead of punishment, education instead of punishment, mental health and housing instead of punishment, health care instead of punishment. This will take years, decades of committed focused attention, endurance, and staying the course, and being led by those who have frankly been in this fight longer than most of the well intentioned people waking up suddenly to the urgency of this issue and this moment. And many of us have a lot of catching up to do. And a lot of listening to do. And a lot of discomfort to sit with. And to sit with discomfort you, and to listen, and to stay in the conversation – you’ll need to breathe.
As the lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur says, “Don’t think of this darkness in world right now as the darkness of the tomb. Think of it as the darkness of the womb.”
Breathing is what allows us to birth newness into the world. Breathing, and screaming, and pain, and teams of people working together toward a common goal – birthing a new reality into existence that no one could have ever imagined. So keep breathing. So keep singing. Keep remembering how uncomfortable and upset you’ve been these past weeks, and let that be fuel to participate actively in change to make up for all that time we’ve spent participating in upholding the status quo.
And that’s what you do 6 days a week. And on Shabbat – right now– breathe with me, and sing a new song.
This sermon was first delivered at Shabbat on June 12, 2020 and can be viewed here.