Breaking Down the Boxes


By Rabbi Tsurah August
Parshat Nitzavim – Vayeilech

“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel; your small children, your women and your immigrant who is in the midst your camp, from the hewer of wood to the drawer of water, for you to pass into the covenant of Hashem, your God and into His oath that Hashem seals with you today … Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem, our God, and with whoever is not here with us today” (Devarim 29: 9-14).

How sweet to open the Tanach — and read the ancient words, chant the pasukim, commune with ancient ideas, ancient voices. Oh, I wrestle with the biases I see embedded in the language and with “names” for the Divine. I wrestle with the interpretations of the commentators. And yet, I love the wrestling!

How sweet to be free of the enchantment and the enchainment of Zoom and FaceTime, email, messaging and texting (I don’t tweet).

How sweet to swim in the nuances and metaphors of the sea of Torah, unbounded by the rules of computers and programs. Guided by the rules of a deeper logic, an ethical logic, a transcendent logic that defies time and place. A logic derived from an ethical code.

I am so weary. Weary of the boxes we humans have painted ourselves into. And not just on Zoom. The boxes that exclude others whose skin color, hair, politics, sex, gender, wealth, status, cognitive ability, physical ability, body shape, style, speech, accomplishments, skills, ideals, values, goals, political party is not like our own. Boxes.

The maxim of the rabbis to “put a fence around Torah,” blasphemed by putting immigrant children in cages. Boxes.

Boxes built to keep men and women imprisoned by a “justice” system that incarcerates people because of their race.

Boxes of privilege that exclude our Black brothers and sisters from having a good education, food security, housing, employment opportunities, affordable health care, child care, elder care — and the boxes pile up.

Early in the pandemic I made up a phrase: “When we put the masks on, the blinders came off.” The despicable injustices, violence, poverty and hate that our Black and brown brothers and sisters have endured every day were for many of us, pre-COVID-19, not in our line of vision. Blinders.

To my surprise and dismay, the blinders of white privilege were so inherent, I did not even know they were on. They were invisible to me. But they were not to others: I didn’t even notice that others saw them — in my speech, my actions, my inactions.

What does it take to know the blinders are on? And, what does it take to peel them off?

I am reminded of Yud Hei Vav Hei saying to Moses, “You cannot see My Face and live!

I imagine the Face revealing every aspect of life, all the good and all the brokenness. Too much to bear!

With the help of the speed and scope of media today, we are brought face to face with the tragic events exploding around the world. At times, it is more than many of us can bear. So, we can put the blinders back on, switch the channel to something to distract and amuse us. Or turn off the screen and look into each other’s faces.

“You are standing today, all of you.”

I know there will be a time, may it be soon and in our day, when we will physically stand in close contact with each other. Will there be a day when we can all stand together for Justice for everyone?

In the meantime, we will keep that vision alive and work for it, shape our lives to fulfill it.

And we will gather together. Not all of us but, as Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

“I call Heaven and Earth today, to bear witness against you. I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring” (Devarim 30:19).

Rabbi Tsurah August is the chaplain for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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