On the way to Sinai (on racism and economic justice)

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We are on a journey. This period that we are now moving through, the seven weeks that start on the second day of Passover and end at Shavuot or Weeks,  the next holiday in the calendrical cycle, is a journey from Egypt to Sinai. It is deeply symbolic that as the first day of Passover was waning this year, we were marking the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year that anniversary was marked amidst the outcries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, amidst the sounds of gunshots and the cries of unarmed black and brown men killed by officers of the law, of the state.
Police beating a black man.We are on a journey—but where are we going?
We know where we are coming from. We are coming from the Egypt of the three evils, as Dr. King described them, racism, poverty, and militarism. As the Yiddish proverb goes: any place can be your Egypt, any place can be your Promised Land. Today in the United States we are facing these same interrelated issues. Poverty overwhemingly impacts communities of color. Communities of color are impoverished by mass incarceration. The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Those people are then barred from the right to vote, have a harder time getting housing, or a job. As Michelle Alexander has argued, this is the new method of social control, of racist social control. A new Jim Crow in impact even if not in explicit intention. The police and incarceration regime are more and more militarized. While there are exceptions, the pictures that the whole world saw of police officers in Ferguson, MO in camouflage uniforms pointing assault weapons at unarmed civilians, is more often than not the rule.
What is our destination? Our destination is Sinai. Our destination is that moment of revelation when, as Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares teaches us, God introduced Godself by saying: “I am God, the God who hates cruel oppression and violence, who therefore removed you from the house of bondage.” Sinai was a revelation of nonviolence and justice. A vision of a world in which God’s love of every individual was a proof that every single person was and is equally worthy and loved by God. Sinai was the statement that every person’s perception of revelation has to be brought together to create the revelation as a whole.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the revelation of God at Sinai is happening all the time. The reason it took the Israelites two months to hear it is that they first had to cleanse themselves of Egypt. They had to cleanse themselves of the racism, the materialism, and the militarism. Once they cleansed themselves of Egypt—the revelation at Sinai could be heard.
A crowd forming around police.The journey then is to cleanse ourselves of Egypt. In order to get to Sinai we have to awaken to the ways in which our city, our country is still mired in Egypt—in racism, economic injustice, and militarism. On the first day of Passover in Los Angeles there was a march to commemorate the assassination of Martin Luther King and to raise up the cries of Black Lives Matter and Brown Lives Matter. Not that other lives don’t matter—but at this moment in our journey it is obvious that for many parts of our society the knowledge that Black and Latino lives matter is not a given.
On the middle days of Passover, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together with the Black Jewish Justice Alliance and Skid Row community activists held a press conference at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department demanding an independent prosecutor for all police involved lethal shootings. We also demanded that resources be shifted in the LAPD in favor of SMART teams (which can provide social service and mental health services) and away from the occupation mentality of current policing—especially in Skid Row. We symbolically poured blood on the steps of LAPD—praying that the plague of the blood of the killing of unarmed men stop—and delivering bitter herbs to the police commissioner and the mayor.
This week, many of the same people gathered together with thousands of workers in Los Angeles and around the country to demand a minimum wage of $15 and hour, and the right to join a union. These are not separate fights. Both of these fights are about seeing people as people. On the one hand seeing young black and brown men as residents and civilians first, not as potential threats. On the other hand seeing fast food and retail workers, home health care workers and hotel service workers as people and not just as an expense line or part of the machinery of a “customer experience.”
And so, if we are to ever get to Sinai, we will have to engage in these nonviolent struggles for the dignity of every person, their ability to live a full life, be able to support themselves without fearing law enforcement or the bill collector. Together we are stronger, as they say. Together we can make it to the mountain.

Crossposted from Justice-in-the-City.com.
Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.