And None Shall Be Afraid

Achrei Mot // Kedoshim 2018
Noa Kushner

I was in Alabama just two days ago, standing at the National Center for Peace and Justice
A memorial dedicated to the victims of white supremacy. 
We were just a few blocks away is The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

I was there with Michael and my three daughters and 85 people from The Kitchen and GLIDE, all of us in this holy, difficult, intensely painful place.

There is a lot to say, trust me, you will be hearing about this visit for a long time, 
And for those of you in The Kitchen, actually, why stop there, for anyone here, 
If I have anything to do with it, you will be going yourselves. 
But this Shabbat I wanted to share one small vantage point
This week when we read the portion of Kedoshim / holiness. 

I can’t really explain how brokenhearted we were by what we saw, read, learned, owned, relearned, and witnessed. 
And at the same time, even though there are parts of our country’s history that bring me deep shame
I still felt proud to be there among the people of many colors, many of us dressed for the occasion, thousands and thousands of pilgrims descending on Montgomery, 
Each of us looking at each other in the eye and greeting one another on the street as if to say, THIS moment marks the birth of the next chapter of the real America, we are building the future of this country right now. 

See there was an understanding among us that
If we started by acknowledging together what has happened, 
what still happens
If we started with truth
The truth could set us free, 
The truth would give us a quality of freedom we have never known.  

I kept thinking of the piece of the verse from Micah (4:3-4)

V’lo yilmadu od milchama / They will not learn war any more
V’yashvu eish tachat gafno / v’tachat t’einato
Each will sit under his vine and under her fig tree
V’ain machrid / And none shall be afraid

I realized there on the streets of Alabama
How corrosive and toxic racism is in almost every interaction we have
How we have been making each other afraid
How we tell one another we are colorblind here in San Francisco
While underneath, everyone one of us is sick with a kind of fear
Those with the privilege, sick with fear
And those targeted by racism, the people with heavy burdens, sick with fear
Those of us who pass but only with the constant concern we will be found out for who we are, sick with fear
Those of us who have no choice but to wear our race on our faces, sick with fear
We are sick from swimming in a river of mistrust and lies
We are sick from walking so carefully on this manicured lawn that we know is filled with pits and traps

We are uneasy and on guard the way a family that keeps a great and tragic secret is uneasy and on guard
We cannot fully exhale, we cannot stand tall.

I realized all this
Because when I walked on the streets of Montgomery
I saw in the people around me
And I felt in myself
Maybe for the first time in my life in America
No one, no one, was afraid 

V’ain machrid / Ain! None! And none shall make them afraid
V’ain machrid / And none shall be afraid
And I’m telling you, the air felt different.

Not because we were only with those just like us
Not because some were left out of the conversation
In our group alone we had a vast range of experiences and classes and backgrounds
As different on paper as different could be
But we were bound together easily with truth

We were bound together with our willingness to confront the truth, no matter how unspeakable it was or is:
The truth of 12 million slaves
The truth of 2 million who died in passage
The truth of hundreds and hundreds of years of families torn apart, legalized abuse
The truth of Emancipation without the tools for survival, without land to own
The truth of asking people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t have boots
The truth of decades of Segregation / 
The truth of Jim Crow and the racial terror of almost 5,000 public lynchings
The truth of our current justice system that claims it is impartial but rewards or penalizes people for the color of one’s skin
The truth of Mass incarceration / of the 2.3 million incarcerated
The truth of an America that holds more prisoners than any other country in the world 

It was that truth and heartbreak upon heartbreak that bound us together
And yes, I am positive that people of color had wholly different experiences than I, 
I tried to take up just my amount of space and no more.

But I can tell you because I witnessed it in the eyes of everyone I met, 
Even the most cutting truths did not make us afraid
V’ain machrid / No one was making us afraid
We were not making each other afraid
We were not afraid of each other
We were not afraid

That is the power of telling a story, Lucy
That is power of telling the truth.
It allows us to leave at least one kind of fear behind.

You live in times of great choices, Lucy
Great and important things are being decided in our time
The story of our country is being rewritten
And different forces are all trying to grab the pen that will write it

So since I know you understand the power of words
The power of stories
I hope you will help to write the truth
I hope you will use your power and imagination and chesed / lovingkindness
(Oy, I never have a met such a pure chesed as the one that shines in you)
You must use that compassion and kindness to help us write the new story.
That is my blessing for you

And I want to leave you with a last image
Because you talked about putting a stumbling block before the blind
How our tradition and the rabbis see that command, 
How they teach that putting a stumbling block before the blind means a prohibition against any act that conceals or misinforms someone who would be hurt by that concealment.

And what I want to leave you with is that sometimes we put those blocks in front of our own eyes, don’t we?
Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to see
That is what our trip to Alabama was about
An effort to remove those blocks, to peel away the blinders, to try and see

And the image I want to give you see is that
We, hundreds of faith leaders and believers were standing in the memorial
Early in the morning for an opening service

And that memorial remember, it is a place that remembers the many innocent who were victims of organized racial terror, lynchings
And there, there are these six foot, steel monuments, all boxes, hundreds of them, rows of rectangles which are inscribed with names of the victims, at least the names we know, and they are at eye level when you come in
But deeper inside, the ground slopes down so that those monuments are now hanging a few feet above our heads

With all the monuments, the deeper you go, 
there is not a lot of light, it is quiet and mostly dark in the center
So early in the morning there we were all pressed together in center there to hear clergy offer words
And prayers
And one leader spread out four powerful singers throughout the group
And they led us in Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now am found
Was blind but now I see

We sang it over and over
In this condensed group of people
I once was lost but now am found
I was blind but now I see
Over and over we sang, like angels, like a heavenly choir
I closed my eyes and felt the presence of the many
So that when the prayer ended and I opened my eyes again
The monuments still hung, the many names were still above my head
Names now permanently recorded in history and in my heart

And along with the names, between those names, I now also saw the slivers of sky
I also saw the eyes of the living, shining faces of the people around me as if for the first time
I took it all in and thought: I was blind but now I see.