Parashat Hashavua for Bereishit
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
Black Woman, Black Woman, my mother the earth,
Soul of my substance the rich black dirt,
Coloured blood red a black man's blood,
Absorbed for eternity by your endless love….
'Cause you are forever my mother the earth,
The soul of my substance the rich black dirt.
Coloured blood red, a Black Man's blood,
Absorbed for eternity by your endless love. [i]
I discovered this poem by Aboriginal poet “Riverbank Frank” Doolan last May – the week after African American George Floyd died, as a policeman knelt on his neck for over 8 minutes. The poem’s imagery reminded me of two dramatic events in the Torah: One, when the ground swallowed the rebel Korach, who had protested against Moses; the other, from this week’s parashah, when Abel’s blood cried out from the ground after he was killed by his brother, Cain.
But the blood absorbed by the earth in Frank Doolan’s poem is specifically a black man’s blood. So it also recalls the contemporary image of Floyd pinned to the ground, as he suffocated to death. There are too many instances—in all countries—of mother earth embracing a son who dies by the hands of his own brother—embracing a son whose skin colour matches hers, be it the “rich black [Australian] dirt” of the poem, or the black tarmac of street pavement in Minneapolis.
The very first killing of a brother by his brother – Cain and Abel – took place in the very first parasha of Torah, near the very beginning of time. Fratricide appears to be an eternal problem in the human experience. The phrase, gam zeh ya’avor—“this too shall pass”—implies that all things are temporary and none of our problems eternal. But consider the multi-generational impact of institutionalised racism endured by the black community in America, such that today a black person is more than twice as likely to die of Covid as a white person.[ii] Consider the decades long agony endured by the Stolen Generation in Australia, many of whom lost their parents and children; the disproportionate number of Aboriginal deaths in custody [iii] and of suicide in indigenous communities; [iv] and how this will impact children growing up without a parent. Consider the rise of neo-Nazism that learns from the Shoah not “never again,” but how to use symbols and slogans to further dark and murderous agendas. Does everything really pass? It seems that discrimination actually endures, taking different forms in different generations; that trauma actually endures, impacting every generation differently; and that poverty actually endures, manifesting differently in different nations. These plagues don’t pass and disappear; they pass on, to the next generation. Ever since Cain and Abel, brothers have been killing brothers, and this problem feels eternal.
There’s a confronting change in our new machzor: The English “alphabet” of our sins accompanying the Vidui confession is now a word for word translation, and when we get to the Hebrew word shichatnu,the machzor translates: “We kill.” We kill. We may not actively murder but, let us confess, there is a lot of killing that goes on under our watch as a democratic society. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, we each bear the mark of Cain, and the earth is “soaked with blood.” “In a free society,” he says, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
While “We kill” is confronting, the machzor hints at something vitally important: killing is not an eternal human condition – we can learn not to kill. We are not pre-programmed to keep on killing eternally. In fact, the story of Cain and Abel doesn’t take place until the 4th chapter of Genesis. The 7 days of creation happen first, before Cain and Abel are born. And though the first human beings, their parents Adam and Eve, transgressed, killing was not one of their sins. From Adam and Eve, we learn that temptation, weakness of will, exile, painful childbirth, and lust may all be part of the human condition, but killing is not.
In the eyes of our tradition, there is much that is older than fratricide, including—the Mishnah teaches—the ground that swallowed the rebel Korach. That is, one of God’s creations was Merciful Mother Earth who embraces the blood of her children whom humanity rejects. A merciful earth was put in place for eternity – a merciful earth that accepts the blood of every human being without regard to the colour of one’s skin or society’s definition of race, because, as the Talmud teaches, no one’s blood is any redder than anybody else’s.[v] Fratricide, domination of one race over another, brutality and inequality – these are human creations that started only later, after Shabbat, the day of completion of God’s universe. So we must never accept them as eternal. We must always seek to abolish them.
The recent yamim nora’im remind us what is God’s doing that is eternal and what is our own doing that can be undone through atonement and by making different choices. Among that which we humans can change is how we treat one another, our brothers and sisters. Dr. Martin Luther King said: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism…that the bright daybreak of…brotherhood can never become a reality.” [vi] He urged those “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality” to maintain faith that “this situation can and will be changed.” [vii] He dreamt of a different tomorrow, a better humanity, and knew we could change ourselves and our society. Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass, if only we put our minds to dreaming.
Indigenous Teaching Artist, Zelda Quakawoot writes of giving voice to such dreams:
A right to be heard
Not censored of word
A voice that is true
Not a momentary view
A word that is said
It remains in our heads
Of value that’s true
In both me and you
It signals the start
From deep in our hearts
A sentence recalls
From the big to the small
It flows like a stream…
“I have a dream…” [viii]
Let us dream into being a safer world for people of all shades, by listening to each other’s dreams, hearing them, and acting on them, not suffocating them to death.
[ii] https://soba.iamempowered.com/johns-hopkins-reportand https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/08/13/902261618/covid-19-death-rate-for-black-americans-twice-that-for-whites-new-report-saysand https://covidtracking.com/race
[v] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin74a-b