Rosh Chodesh Call to Mourn, Connect and Act for Racial Justice
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Content warning: racism, police violence
As we approach Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning the destruction of our communities throughout time, I’m devastated by the ongoing degradation and subjugation of Black lives and our communities. In the two years since George Floyd’s murder, Black people continue to be killed by police at over twice the rate of white folks despite making up only 13% of the population; police budgets in the country have been either entirely restored or increased since the 2020 racial justice uprising to hold police accountable; and all our communities are under the assualt of weekly mass shootings, including the racially targeted mass shooting of Black elders in Buffalo, NY.
I’m particularly mourning the recent racist murder and dehuminization of Jayland Walker, an unarmed Black man just a few years younger than myself who was shot over 40 times by the police in Akron, Ohio. After 8 officers inhumanely unloaded their clips while he tried to flee for his life, they took their racist degradation even further by handcuffing him while he lay bleeding out on the ground. One would expect a national outcry similar to the response to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Mike Brown’s murder, but sadly protests and outrage have largely been localized in Akron itself because of what I believe is due to mass burnout, apathy, and numbness to the suffering of one another, especially Black lives.
The Jewish tradition accounts for this oscillation between connected activation and numb apathy to the needs of others and even ourselves, providing us with moments like Tisha B’Av to wake us up and soften our hearts enough to actually reconnect to the feelings and needs of the community. Breaking through the numbness to feel connection helps to ignite and energize us to action, fueling our desire for justice. Ironically and perhaps non-intuitively, breaking through our numb apathy and reconnecting with our feelings is best done through doing and action itself, and the traditions of Tisha B’Av provide us with those concrete actions, behaviors, and rituals of mourning that can be the catalyst for this reconnection to empathizing to self and others.
If you haven’t thought of or confirmed your plans for Tisha B’Av or if you historically have not observed this tradition, I invite you to try it on. Find a community to mourn with; abstain from the pleasures of eating and joyous activities for 24 hours if you’re able to; read through the book of Eicha, the traditional text of Tisha B’Av; or watch the 40 Days of Teshuvah short film with your community.
While we use traditional Jewish spiritual tools of mourning, i.e fasting, to help us break through the numbness and reconnect to justice, we quickly can become the hypocrites described in Yeshayahu that spiritually afflict their souls while ignoring the physical affliction and degradation of others. Affliction of our bodies is necessary but not sufficient for real teshuva. It is action to undo oppression and suffering that are the vital components of communal repair. What is your next action to repair the legacy of racial injustice that festers daily in our society?
Join me in learning and following what YHVH/The Living Presence teaches us is the “desirable fast” of justice through the prophet Yeshayahu:
Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a shofar! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Yaacov their sin. To be sure, they seek Me daily eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, That has not abandoned the laws of HaShem, They ask Me for the right way, They are eager for the nearness of HaShem:
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business, and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for people (men) to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the YHVH is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe them (him), and not to ignore your own kin…If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry, and satisfy the famished creature — Then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday. (Yishayahu 58: 3-10)
Refraining from food and drink may help break through a state of numbness, but we learn from Yeshayahu that affliction of our bodies is necessary but not sufficient for real teshuva. It is action to undo oppression and suffering that are the vital components of communal repair. What is your next action to repair the legacy of racial injustice that festers daily in our society?
Spiritual activist and community organizer Yehudah Webster works to animate and integrate anti-racist behaviors and culture in communities, supporting the collective organizing, advocacy and direct service efforts to dismantle racism systemically. As the Program Director and Faculty at Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, Yehudah equips communities with the daily concrete spiritual tools of Mussar to subvert racism within ourselves and others through facilitating workshops, consulting with organizations, and building a community of anti-racist practice. He has presented in a wide variety of settings, including staff developments for organizations, college campuses, communal institutions, and youth group programs. Yehudah is a graduate of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship, Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership Program, and Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project’s Ovdim Fellowship.