No one is excluded in the Divine Presence

You remember the works of creation, and all that You have made.

In Your Presence, all that is hidden is revealed,

from the beginning of time.

There is no forgetfulness in Your Presence. Nothing is hidden from Your sight.

These words from our shofar liturgy came to me this summer as I co-led a vigil for a group of excluded workers who were remembering their loved ones who had died from COVID-19. As we know, COVID affects “essential workers” disproportionately. Those gathered had created a beautiful memorial with the names of their spouses, grandparents, uncles, siblings and friends who had died from COVID — many people at the vigil had lost multiple family members.

Our society uses the word “essential” to describe so many people — including many of you — who couldn’t stop taking the subway, who never stopped going to work, when the shutdown began.

But we were gathered in Madison Square Park outside of Jeff Bezos’ luxury home –one of many billionaires whose wealth has increased during this pandemic — to protest the fact that many of those we call “essential” workers are excluded from the care and support that is essential to their survival and well-being.

Many of our neighbors, especially here in Queens, are undocumented and do not qualify for unemployment benefits or food stamps. And even those who do qualify risk eviction and are suffering deprivation, hunger and insecurity, and do not have what they need for their children to learn remotely.

But our tradition teaches that there is no exclusion in the Divine Presence. There is no forgetfulness before the throne of glory. All are remembered in the all-encompassing embrace of God.

Nothing is hidden from Your sight.

These words resonate as I reflect on this year and how, in Trevor Noah’s words, “the curtain has been pulled back” for so many white folks like myself, on what has been the reality of Black life — including the lives of Black Jews — in this country for generations. Viral video has made visible only a fraction of what has been hidden from white peoples’ consciousness — the violence and terror our country perpetrates against Black people.

Up until COVID, I was working on understanding my white privilege, my class privilege. But in April, during the worst days for our city — when thousands of people were dying every day — the awareness of my privilege deepened and I saw how much more there was to uncover.

I imagine many of us have spent time in places where the wealthy class live in houses surrounded by high walls with gates and the poor live in tents and shacks. In these places, the exclusion is in your face. Back in April, my family and I had fully recovered from our thankfully mild cases of COVID, and my heart shattered as I learned about what was happening right here in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona, and in majority POC and immigrant neighborhoods across the city. Families where multiple members had died within weeks or even days of each other, overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare workers, unemployment soaring, neighbors skipping meals and scrounging for food.

I realized that although we don’t have a high wall or a gate around our home — the fact that I only share my living space with 3 other people, the fact that we have a car, that we have credit cards and jobs we can do from home, dependable wifi and laptops –all of this is a wall protecting us from and hiding the realities right down the street from us.

And then, just before Shavuot, George Floyd was choked to death by the police in Minneapolis. And in that moment, it felt like there was nothing left to unmask. Nothing left that could be explained away. The evil of white supremacy as exercised through the power of the state was right there for all to see, with a smirk on its face.

In Your Presence, all that is hidden is revealed, from the beginning of time.

There is no forgetfulness in Your Presence.

In God’s Presence, Black lives matter. Black lives are sacred and precious and not forgotten.

In God’s Presence, LGBTQ folks and excluded workers, the unemployed and the hungry, the undocumented, the incarcerated and the recently released prisoners are cared for; are a part of the whole.

In our sources, God remembers the marginalized again and again. God remembers Joseph who languishes in Pharaoh’s dungeon. God hears the cry of the Israelite slaves.

In today’s Torah portion, we have such a story. Sarah demands that her husband Abraham expel the slave woman Hagar, and Ishmael, the son Hagar has with Abraham, from their household. Seeing Ishmael and her son Isaac playing together, Sarah is afraid that Ishmael will inherit a portion of what her son Isaac is entitled to. According to inheritance law at that time, Ishmael is entitled to a portion of Abraham’s estate. But another ancient Near Eastern law stipulates that a father may grant freedom to a slave woman and the children she has borne him, in which case they forfeit all claims to his property.[1] So Abraham casts Ishmael and Hagar out of the camp. The excluded worker, Hagar’s years of service are rewarded with a bit of water and bread as she is sent empty handed into the wilderness.

A young, innocent boy, Ishmael is perceived as a threat.

In our time and place, studies show that people overestimate Black boys’ ages by 4 ½ years, perceiving them as less childlike than white boys — as threats rather than as the innocent children that they are.

George Zimmerman admitted at his 2012 bail hearing that he misjudged Trayvon Martin’s age when he killed him. “I thought he was a little bit younger than I am,” he said, meaning just under 28. But Trayvon was only 17.[2]

Back in our Torah portion, God hears Ishmael’s cry “ba-asher hu sham” from where the boy truly is — young, helpless, hungry, and full of promise. God opens Hagar eyes and shows her a well of water. Vay’hi Elohim et-ha-na-ar. And God is with the boy, and he grows up, and he becomes the father of a great nation.

God sees and cares for Hagar and Ishmael. They are remembered. They are included.

The Unentaneh Tokef prayer tells us that today, on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Remembrance and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.

As we stand here today, before the throne of glory, exposed and vulnerable — everyone’s actions revealed from the beginning of time, reviewing this year, taking account, what are we called to build? Who are we called to be? What is the teshuva we need to make this year?

During one of the worst weeks this spring — the week that saw George Floyd’s murder — the rabbi that I needed to make sense of it all was Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show. Broadcasting from his bedroom, Noah helped me see more clearly what kind of teshuva we need.

Among other things, he reflected on the videos of Black people looting Target in Minneapolis and how so many observers were focusing their outrage on looting and destruction of property rather than on the state’s taking of a life. White commentators were complaining that “this is not how society is built”

Noah asks,

What is society? It’s a contract that we sign amongst each other — we say we agree on common rules, ideals, and practices as a group. [But] the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it. . .. And then some members of the society — Black American people — watch time and time again how the contract they have signed with society is not being honored by the people who have forced them to sign that contract with them.

When you watch Ahmaud Arbery being shot and then see that the men who shot him have been released — what part of the contract is that?

When you see George Floyd losing his life at the hands of those who have sworn to serve and protect, what part of the contract is that?

How does it help me to loot Target? But how does it help me to not loot Target? There is no contract if law and people in power don’t uphold their end of it.

A lot of times people say to the have-nots, this is not the right way to handle things. When Colin Kaepernick kneels, they say this is not the right way to protest. When Dr. King had children as part of his protests in Birmingham, they say this is not the right way.

There is never a right way to protest because that’s what protest is.

When you feel that unease, watching people looting Target, ask yourself how Black Americans feel when they see themselves being looted every single day. Because that is what is happening in America. Police in America are looting black bodies.

In Judaism, we have an ancient version of the social contract that Trevor Noah is talking about — the Brit, the covenant. It is a mutual agreement among the people, and collectively, with God. The people will build a holy society –where the poor don’t go hungry, where the justice system governs every person fairly no matter their wealth or social status. In return God will take care of us, allow us to live safely in our homes, and all people will have the opportunity to thrive.

Throughout our People’s sacred story, we enter into covenant with God, and then we stray from that covenant. We forget our workers, we forget to clothe the naked, our judges and leaders become corrupt, we mistreat the stranger, we unleash baseless hatred upon each other. In the Biblical stories, the consequence of straying from the covenant is to be exiled from our home– to be estranged from God and from each other.

But then we wake up. We see how we have strayed, and we turn towards who we intended to be. We start the process of building a new way. And when we do teshuva — when we turn and we build, God meets us and builds along with us. Last night, the book of the prophet Nehemiah taught us that after a generation of exile in Babylon — our people return to God, to a sense of interdependence and collective purpose –and they build a new Temple, a new city, a new way.

In the very first paragraph of our Torah, the Divine Spirit breathes over the waters of chaos and brings forth a new creation. On this Rosh Hashanah, birthday of the world, let us begin the process of bringing forth a new contract, a new covenant — with each other and with the Earth.

Let us excavate, examine, and own up to the white supremacist foundations of this country. Let Black people, Indigenous people, POC, the marginalized among us design the blueprint and direct the building. May we build a new home where all are remembered, where all are cared for, especially the Hagars and Ishmaels, the George Floyds and Breonna Taylors, the Dominique “Rem-mie” Fells and Tony McDades among us — and where we care for our earthly home.

May the stone the builders of this country rejected become the chief cornerstone. (Psalm 118)

_______________________________

Click HERE to get involved with the Campaign to Fund Excluded Workers in NY State.

Click HERE to hear a recording of Malkhut’s Shara Feldman’s chant of “Even Ma’asu,” the rejected stone.

Footnotes:

[1] Etz Hayyim commentary p. 114

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/black-kids-discrimination.html

Written by

Rabbi Goldenberg is the founder of Malkhut, a progressive Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens (malkhutqueens.org). She resides in Jackson Heights.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store