Sanctifying Black Lives

Our nation is in spiritual crisis. As a nation, we have profaned the holiness of God as it is manifest in black lives. There are not sufficient words to describe the pain and injustice that is present in Ferguson, of which this week’s grand jury decision is only one piece. Hearts are breaking. People are taking to the streets. We are angry at the reality that we live in a world with no justice and no peace. We live in a nation whose structures and policies have delivered the message again and again that black lives do not matter. Black lives are not holy. They are profane. They are expendable. Black America has endured the trans-atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, the intentional sterilization of black women, the medical experiments done on black men, and the prison industrial complex.  For many of us (white people in particular), it would be easy to look at Ferguson and see it disconnected from the past–to see it as an isolated incident, deracinated and deracialized. We live in an amnesiac culture when it comes to oppression. It encourages us to remove ourselves from our histories and from each other. The maintenance of white supremacy and white privilege rests on this amnesia and our resulting lack of action. But we must remember the past. It is still present.

In Torah, God commands the Israelites to remember Shabbat–that weekly gift in which we rest and refrain from work. In the first articulation of the ten commandments, we read “Zachor et yom ha’shabbat l’kadsho/Remember the day of sabbath to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:11). We learn the process of sanctification through the act of remembering. We learn that it is in our power to increase the kedushah, the holiness, in the world by remembering something.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user, Dovid
Photo courtesy of Flickr user, Dovid

When we read the second iteration of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5, the commandment reads that we should shamor/keep the day of sabbath rather than remember it. Sanctification does not only happen through our minds but in our actions as well. On this difference between the iterations in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Talmud teaches, “Zachor and shamor were pronounced in a single utterance, – an utterance which the mouth cannot utter, nor the ear hear” (Shavuot 20b). While we, as limited humans, cannot pronounce or hear the words simultaneously, we are capable of living the commandments out. We are capable of remembering and keeping Shabbat simultaneously. They reinforce and strengthen each other. It would be meaningless to keep Shabbat without remembering it and it would be meaningless to remember it and do nothing about it. We bring holiness to Shabbat through the united effort of our memories and our actions, by uniting the words of shamor and zachor. We must do both to make something holy.

Today, when a hashtag movement of #blacklivesmatter is necessary to convince the world of this basic fact, we need to publicly sanctify black lives. All people, and we white people in particular, need to do the sacred work of zachor and shamor. We need to remember the histories of racism and the complex histories of black people in this country. We need to keep ourselves, our communities, and our governments accountable to the idea that black lives matter. One without the other will not do. We must remember and we must keep.

Following each iteration of the Shabbat commandment, there is a different rationale for observing it. Exodus reminds that we remember Shabbat because of its connection to Creation. It reminds us of the holiness of God’s creations, and the fact that we humans are made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. No exceptions. In Deuteronomy, we keep Shabbat because we were once slaves and God brought us out of Narrow Places (the Hebrew word for Egypt mean narrow places) into freedom. We keep Shabbat because we are grateful for our freedom and because we celebrate and strive for liberation.

If our minds, our hearts, and our hands engage in this process of sanctifying black lives, we will bring about a more redeemed world. If we remember and if we keep. If we honor the sacredness of creation and the divinity in all humans. If we yearn and organize for liberation. These are the lessons that Shabbat teaches us about sanctification. We must publicly sanctify the lives that our government would have us believe to be profane. Black lives are already holy. Our work is to make that known.

 Photo courtesy of Twitter user neunjungle


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One thought on “Sanctifying Black Lives

  1. Thanks for addressing a difficult topic Alex. If I can, let me push you a little to be more specific. You say that we need to “publicly sanctify black lives”, but beyond mentioning the twitter hashtag #blacklivesmatter, I’m not sure what you actually mean. What does “sanctification” actually look like in practice, or in this case, in how we might respond to not only Ferguson, but all the daily manifestations of white supremacy in the US?

    You said: “We learn the process of sanctification through the act of remembering. We learn that it is in our power to increase the kedushah, the holiness, in the world by remembering something.”

    But I would suggest that many white folks in the US cannot remember that black lives matter because they were never taught this in the first place. You cannot remember something you have not learned. So do you think that the problem is really memory in the context of racial injustice, or something else?

    Curious to hear your thoughts, or how you would expand on this idea of sanctification.

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