Hannah Ellenson / June 17, 2016
When I was 6, the Baskin Robbins ice cream store on the corner of my school was burned down, as were all of the stores in the strip-mall next to it. I knew something bad was going on because my parents had to pick me up from school early. I was scared, but I also knew I was safe. I found out that the police — who I knew were supposed to protect me — had beaten up a person who had done something “bad.”
Years later, I discovered of course that the man they had beaten was named Rodney King and those fires had been the famous LA Riots. As a White, Ashkenazi Jewish 6 year old, I had no idea that Black people were treated differently by anyone, especially the police.
When we meet the Israelites this week, they’re not in a great mood. Don’t get me wrong — they’ve been through a lot recently. They’ve been walking around that desert for what feels like ages and Miriam has just died. Miriam was important for lots of reasons. But the reason why she was so vital to the Israelites in this exact moment is because she was the one that was able to find water no matter where they went, which is a particularly important task in the desert.
Moses then gets into major trouble with God because he hit a rock in what ended up being a successful effort to get water to come out of it.
And even though the Israelites now have water, they’re still complaining about everything, and God has really started to get pretty angry. God decides at this point it’s time for a punishment not just for Moses, but for all of the Israelites.
The punishment is this: God sends all of these huge snakes to bite them. It sounds fake, I know (which it might be), but this is how the story goes. The snakes that God sent to punish the Israelites start biting people and many get sick and die.
We don’t normally like to think of God as an all-powerful, punishing deity, so this is not a story that’s told very often, but why not? Including the stories we don’t often hear — whether from the Torah or in regular everyday life — are what makes life more complicated and beautiful and interesting. Introducing another layer helps us better understand the relationship between God and the Israelites in this case or Black people’s experiences with police to be a little more timely.
But before we dive into that, let’s go back to the snakes for a second — what happens next? “God said to Moses, ‘Make a snake figure and mount it on a staff. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover’…when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover” (Numbers 21:8–9)
If the Israelites looked right at the very thing that was about to kill them, the thing that was the scariest for them in that moment to encounter directly, is now what is supposed to cure them.
What does it mean to really look and see something — to truly see it and confront it in an effort to make things better — even in the moments that are the most frightening?
It’s not always so easy to see things on our own. Sometimes we need them pointed out to us. As a White woman, it’s my responsibility in this moment to listen to the stories of Black people so that I can become a true ally in confronting race relations in this country directly, so I can see it, so I can help move this problem closer to a cure.
Dr. Brian Williams, a healer, a Black man, and the surgeon who operated on the police officers who were killed in Dallas last week, said: “When I’m at work dressed in my white coat the reactions I get with individuals and the officers I deal with on a daily basis is much different to what I would get outside the hospital in regular clothes and my fear and mild inherent distrust in law enforcement, that goes back to my own personal experiences that I’ve had in my own personal life as well as hearing the stories from friends and family that look like me, that have had similar experiences.”
This isn’t easy to hear — it’s easier to assume that everyone gets along. But we know that isn’t true — we don’t live in a post racial America.
The videos of Black people being beaten or killed that have been widely shared on social media are impossible to ignore. Most recently, the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana were particularly gruesome. But we must see them — the videos, the pictures of these men with their loved ones, the stories of their lives — to try to understand just a little bit of the fear and distrust that Dr. Williams was talking about.
Seeing — or understanding — is to become responsible, and no amount of denial can change that responsibility.
There’s a story in the Mishna about Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya’s cow. The rabbis come to understand that the owner of the cow is violating the rules of Shabbat, and they ask, how could the great Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariya break the laws of Shabbat? That just wouldn’t happen. And even more than that, everyone knows that he has great herds of cattle, so what sense does it make to speak of just one cow?
The Talmud answers its own questions: the cow did not actually belong to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariya. In fact, it belonged to his neighbor. But he did nothing about it. He did not protest the cow’s owner’s actions, and so it was referred to as his. (Shabbat 54b)
Rabbi David Rosenn explains:
If you do not protest a wrong, you come to own it. It may not have been yours to begin with, but enough willful ignorance can make people refer to it as yours. And they will not be wrong.
Now that we have seen, what can we do? What does it mean to look at the snake in this case? Seeing on its own is unfortunately not the cure here. Seeing will not bring Sandra Bland or Rekia Boyd or Tamir Rice back to life. Looking at the most ugly, racist parts of our society must be the start to more.
Now we must take action — show up; donate to bail funds for Black Lives Matter protestors; write to city officials to encourage partnership community policing efforts; if you’re White, ask your friends and family members of color how they’re doing. The killing of Black people by racists is sadly not new, it is just now more visible to White people.
I now, of course, know more about race and race relations than I did when I was six, and while that’s incredibly painful and challenging sometimes, I feel privileged to hold the complexity of life, to see that which I couldn’t before.
Every morning, we’re supposed to recite the following blessing: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, poke’ach ivrim — Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind.