Discipline in This Difficult Moment.

Parashat Naso

A boy was late coming home to his mother.

“What kept you so long?” his mother asked.

“I saw my friend whose doll had broken. She was crying, and I stopped to help her.”

“And what do you know about fixing dolls?”

“Nothing…. But I could sit with her, and help her cry.”

There is so much that is broken right now, so many things in need of repair. And then there is that which never even had the chance to be whole, built as it was on a broken foundation, around a broken core.

Our inclination is to fix. It’s one of the most beautiful things about people. And we saw that this past Sunday morning, when hundreds of people showed up with brooms, boards, and dustpans as manifestations of their love. The broken windows and buildings of our city can be fixed, and they either were or will be. But so much of the pain and grief we’re feeling in our country right now is not the kind of brokenness that can be fixed with hammers and nails. And misdirected love and concern runs the danger of making the pain worse.

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that when a person wishes to consecrate themselves to God, they take upon themselves the vow of a Nazrite, distinguished by two main characteristics:

    1. Abstaining from wine and strong drink.
    2. All the days of his vow, no razor shall come upon his head.

Leaving aside the fact that many of us have gone without haircuts for quite some time now, how else does this text connect to our current moment, to the events of our day? 

The most famous Nazirite was Samson, a biblical persona known for his tremendous strength and considerable power. Yet his power, his connection to the divine — like all Nazirites — derived from what he didn’t do. His power came from his restraint.

“The discipline not to act,” as I’ve seen it put. Perhaps that is what this moment asks of us above all us. Not to be bystanders, no. Not to remain silent about injustice. But there are certain reactions that have become so ingrained in difficult moments that center around race — and this is about as difficult as it gets. Can we have discipline? The discipline not to act out of fear? The discipline not to rush to judgment? The discipline not to call the shots; not to say what we think is appropriate; not to tell a grieving person, a grieving group, a grieving nation how to grieve?

Think of the boy whose friend was grieving her broken doll. We all know people — the most well-meaning, loving, caring people — who say all of the things he could have said:

“It’s just a doll.”

“Why don’t you try this?”

“I know you’re upset, but crying isn’t going to help.”

And, of course, he could also have just walked by. Those of us with privilege and power, we always have that choice. Turn the channel, wait it out, walk on by. But the discipline not to act isn’t about ignoring a problem. It’s about staying put, sitting down, listening and learning. It’s about trying to understand, and centering voices and emotions other than own.

A Nazirite’s vow doesn’t last forever — it’s an oath taken for a certain duration of time — and our inaction shouldn’t last forever either. Far from it. Once we’ve listened; once we’ve learned more than we currently know and understand ourselves better; once we’ve sat with our discomfort; once our eyes are opened to the foundational history of racism in this country; once we can empathize with even a fraction of the anger, pain, and fear of the African American community; once we can hold up the cause and passion of protest, full stop, without qualifications about how, when, or where it should be done; once we can affirm not, “It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop,” but rather, “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men and women has to stop;” once we can prioritize the right part — then, by all means, we need to act.

Participate in a campaign.

Familiarize yourself with the goals of the Movement for Black Lives. 

Demand a racial bias audit of the North Charleston Police Department, like the one that was conducted in Charleston.

Use your power to enact change.

Just after the description of the Nazirite vows in this week’s Torah portion, come the well-known words of the Priestly Blessing. We recite them at our Shabbat tables and under the chuppah; at baby namings and for the community as a whole. Birkat Kohanim is the way that one Jewish generation blesses another. And we use different melodies for different occasions. Some are soft and simple; some upbeat and joyful. One of my favorite renditions sounds like a lullaby. But tonight we need the “big one” — the one that calls down the power of a God on high; a fixing God; a God who hears, and holds, and repairs.

God, You’ve been there for every generation before us. They felt Your power and sensed Your presence. Be there, we ask, for us now. Be with us — act in us, and through us. Help us to be still; to hear and hold the deep pain of others. Help us do better for You and one another.

In our Shabbat evening liturgy we ask for a Shalom Rav — a great peace — not because we’re greedy, but because that’s what we need; that’s what it’s going to take. A great peace that lasts longer than a curfew. A great peace that is more than just the absence of violence. A great peace that extends to all people; in all places; of every hue, ethnicity, and creed. A great peace that cannot be undone by the whims and ignorance of those who refuse to see the problem, much less be part of the solution. A great peace that reflects the beauty and glory of Your spirit, the spirit You have implanted within every single human being.

Pirkei Avot (1:18) teaches: “When truth is spoken and justice is done, then peace is established.” There simply are no shortcuts. So even as we call out to God, let us commit to what we need to. As Rabbi Sally Priesand expounds: “For truth to be spoken, each of us must learn to listen, opening our ears to hear one another’s truth and our hearts to understand it. For justice to be done, it must exist for everyone. … [Then, and] only then, can we find the wholeness that [is] true peace.”

Y’varechecha Adonai v’yism’recha

May God bless us and keep us

Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha v’yichuneka

May God enlighten us and be gracious unto us

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom

May God always look favorably upon us and may we be blessed with peace

Amen.

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