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Black Lives Matter - Shabbat Naso

Black Lives Matter - Shabbat Naso
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW

A warning that my words tonight will speak the names and stories of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who have died.

Usually at this time in our service I tell a story. Tonight I am going to tell a different story, it is the story of a man who was murdered last week, a man whose life was taken at the hands of those who had sworn to protect it. The story of George Floyd, the husband, son and father who will no longer be there to read bedtime stories to his daughter, to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, to hold her when she cries out to him in the night, afraid and alone. He will not be there to love her, hold her, celebrate with her or comfort her and it is because of the colour of his skin. George, like so many other people of colour in America, was targeted, vilified, profiled and murdered. He cried out for help, he pleaded but to no avail. Each time I hear the story, each time I read the words I hope that a new ending will be written, that a different outcome will appear, that there will be a happy ending, a reunion of family, justice. But the ink is dry, the story is written…but it is not over. The next part of the story will be written by us, by every person who is outraged, distressed and angry about what happened to him, every person who now sees a little of the story of so many people of colour in America. As we listen to the words of those who are speaking, we are hearing, we are listening, we are seeing. 

But if we see and listen only to those in America, we silence the voices in our own community, right here with us in Australia, who are calling to us with their stories. They are saying to us: “look here, see what is happening, understand that people are dying and suffering beside you: listen and hear and understand and know.” Australia has our stories as well.

The story of Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, 32 years old. She loved art, poetry, speaking about her Indigenous culture. She was arrested for shoplifting and two days later she was dead. And David Dungay Jnr, a Dunghutti man, uncle, with a talent for poetry, who made his family proud, was held down by 5 correctional services officers and died in his cell, after calling out 12 times that he could not breathe. [1] These are two names, two people, there are hundreds more.

In 1991 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was concluded. There were 339 recommendations and since that day, 432 Aboriginal people have died in custody. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people are the most incarcerated in the world per capita, four times more than African Americans.

There is deep trauma amongst the peoples of our First Nations, within my lifetime children were still being taken from their parents. Amanda Fotheringham, a Gumilaroi woman, wrote about her grandmother having her 12 children taken from her, ripped from family and community, heritage and tradition and the trauma is intergenerational, felt by Amanda, her siblings and her children. [2] Brooke Boney, a Gamilaroi woman, spoke this week about her grandfather who had to wear dog tags and was not permitted to bathe in the public swimming pool because of the colour of his skin. And how at 72 years of age, he was arrested at a football game. The teetotaller was accused of being drunk and disorderly, he was just supporting his football team. Brooke asked her white co-hosts on channel 9: “would that have happened to your grandfathers?” [3] And in the midst of Reconciliation Week we saw an ancient Aboriginal sacred site blown up, thousands of years of history, holy, sacred land, a deep connection destroyed.

Brooke Boney said about the plight of Aboriginal people growing up in remote communities: “You can’t tell me that their lives aren’t harder. We die earlier, we have less education opportunities, less employment opportunities. For some Aboriginal people life is grim. We need to talk about that and acknowledge it so we can move forward…” [4] Actor, writer and Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman Nakkiah Lui said: “be angry with us, stand with us, protest with us because we need you.” [5]

This week I was reading an article by Victoria Atkinson White who said in this time in our world what we, as individuals need, are holy friends. [6] They are the people she describes who will walk beside us with love, comfort and support but they will also look us in the eyes and tell us the truth, they will listen but not always agree, and they are the ones who are help us to flourish and grow and be. Right now we need holy friendships with our First Nations brothers and sisters. We need to hear them as they look us in the eyes now and say: “we need you to hear our voices, to listen to our stories, to stand beside us, support us.” We need to hear the difficult truths, to see the racism, the times when we have looked away when we should have turned towards, when we chose not to search out and to know, when the conversation was too difficult so we avoided it. Now is the time we need to nurture our holy friendships, to be the friend who listens, hears and understands.  We have an obligation to hear the pain of our Indigenous communities, to walk beside them. The Talmud says that when the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: “I will go to my home and I will eat and drink and peace be upon you my soul” (Talmud Ta’anit 11a) [7] Our tradition calls upon us to be those holy friends. Recently, someone was asked what they need in these times and they responded: “I need someone to carry hard things with me.” [8] We are being called upon to help carry the hard things, to be present and to listen, but listening alone is not enough, we must then act. 

This week in our Torah portion we read about Nachshon ben Aminadav, honoured because he was the one who led the Israelites into the water. The midrash teaches that the Israelites were walled in, Pharaoh and his armies behind them, the raging sea before them, and everyone wailing in fear and panic. But Nachshon began to walk into the waters and when it reached his nostrils and he was about to drown, God intervened and parted the seas. It took Nachshon, walking into the seas filled with hope and belief that there would be redemption, freedom would follow, for the change to happen. We need to be like Nachshon, walking beside our First Nations People, listening to their pain, hearing their struggle and trauma but also honouring their history, their deep connection to land, to hear the song that they sing in harmony with the earth and join together to bring healing, justice and peace to our land and to each other.

This week’s parashah contains the priestly blessing, our ancient words of hope, one of the oldest prayers written and we ask it tonight for our land, for our people, for our First Nations and for people everywhere,

Yevarechecha adonai veyishmerecha
Yaer adonai panav eilecha veyichunecha
Yisa adonai panav eilecha veyasem lecha shalom

May God bless and protect us
May God’s face shine upon us and be present with us
May God’s love surround us and bring us peace, harmony and blessing

[1]“George Floyd’s death brings back trauma for family of Aboriginal man who died in custody” ABC News on line June 1st2020

[2]“Stolen Generation: I am the child of a stolen child, it has made me who I am” ABC News Tuesday 13thFeb 2018 and “My mum was stolen from her mum. Please stop telling me to ‘get over it’” Mamamia May 26th2020

[3]The Today Show, Monday 1stJune 2020

[4]Chelsea McLauchlin “I thought he was going to die” Brooke Boney’s grandfather was taken into police custody, June 3, 2020 Mamamia

[5]The Project June 2, 2020

[6]“When we need holy friendships most” Victoria Atkinson White

[7]Rabbinical Council Boulder CO Statement June 3, 2020

[8]ibid

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