20 May 2011
16 Iyar 5771
At this Wednesday’s Limud Clali (community-wide learning), as part of our anti-bullying education and awareness-raising, we watched the video of an extraordinary speech given at a Facing History and Ourselves 1993 Human Rights and Justice Conference. The speaker, Gregory Alan-Williams, described his experiences of racism as a child and the anger and sadness with which he walked through many years of his life. He described with haunting regret his own hazing of a fellow private in the army: (to paraphrase) “in order to preserve my place among the few and the proud, I took my place among the mob.” Ultimately, he shared the redemptive experience of saving a Japanese American who was being beaten during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. In his own words, rather than being a hero, he felt like a penitent.
The most dramatic and impactful part of his story for me was what appeared to be a transformational moment in his own sense of self and responsibility toward the other. He described himself sitting at a red light next to another car during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and having the opportunity to stop a white couple from driving into the riot area and unknowingly jeopardizing their lives. With only moments to decide whether to roll down his window and warn them, he (regretfully, again) chose to say nothing. But his reflection on that choice seemed to change something in him. In the minutes following his non-action, a detailed conversation took place between his conscience, which told him that these white people were human beings just like him, and his jaded, angry self that had learned to “exile from his human heart” the people who had dehumanized him so long ago.
What I found most stirring about the conversation with his conscience was the very awareness he had, at least in retrospect, that this was not merely a moment of angry reaction. Rather, it was a moment of profound choice—in this case, whether to act or not to act, whether to take a stand or to stand by.
The notion that we are not slaves to our anger and our circumstances but rather free and responsible to make profound moral choices on a regular basis reminded me of the discussion I had had the previous morning in my sicha about this week’s parsha, Bechukotai. This final parsha of the Book of Vaykra (Leviticus), which focuses so much on the process of constructing a kehillah kedoshah (holy community), begins with the word “Im – If” – “If you walk in my ways and observe my mitzvot. . .” This is followed by the rewards that B’nei Yisrael will experience if they honor God’s covenant and commandments and then the vivid and horrific punishments or consequences that will befall them if they stray from the path and abandon God’s ways.
My students debated the value and efficacy of using reward and punishment to motivate good behavior. One student offered a reading at the end of the discussion that focused less on the alienating and problematic verses of rebuke and, instead, zoomed in on the very first word of the parsha, “im -if”. “I think this is less about the rewards and the punishments,” she suggested. “What it is teaching us is that we have the resources and the opportunity to do the right thing, live well, and make good choices. It is up to us. Our future is in our hands.”
My student gave a beautiful Facing History reading of this parsha and, unknowingly, foreshadowed Gregory Alan-Williams’ message that we all would hear the next day. When we are able to zoom in on the “im” moments in our lives, when we realize that we are constantly making choices about how to act and the kind of people we want to be, we create the possibility for us to change, grow, and take responsibility for ourselves and each other and for our past and our future.
Rabbi Marc Baker