Proximity for consolation and deliverance

by Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

July has been a hard month. Elie Weisel passed away. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were senselessly shot and killed by policemen. Women wearing tallit, kippot, and tefilin while praying with the Torah were shouted down and called “Amalek” by fellow Jews at the Kotel. Eight police officers, five in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald, brutally lost their lives at the hands of snipers. My sorrow, fear, and outrage all stem from the same source: radical othering.

This past month seemed to highlight again and again the ease by which some have reduced human beings to mere abstractions– poor black men, subversive women, racist policemen. None of these abstractions is correct and all, by their nature, result in the diminution of human dignity– and, ultimately, in death. The essence of Elie Weisel’s life work was a warning against this type of othering: “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” In order to do this, we must force ourselves to do two things: to get proximate to other people across difference and to share our stories. As the great civil rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson preached when he visited our community in January, “Only through proximity can we begin to see the things that we need to see… [I]t will teach us things that we need to know, but more than that, it will teach us that we have more power than we think we have.” We come to understand that we have the power to see and be seen, to share and hear stories that in turn give us the power to make a difference.  

The heart of parashat Pinchas goes beyond its zealous namesake. It celebrates, instead, the recognition of the sources of anguish and measure of triumph in a unique group of people: Zelophehad’s daughters. This group of women had the insight to get proximate to Moses and share their story. After their father, Zelophehad, died without a male heir, his daughters, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, laid their claim before Moses, Eleazar, the princes and all the Israelites. With tremendous courage, they shared their story, demanding to be seen as human beings, refusing to be othered:

Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no sons? Give to us therefore a possession among the brothers of our father. (Numbers 27:3-4)  

A midrash speculates on the source of their courage and insight:

Once the daughters of Zelephohad heard that the Land was being divided among tribes, but to males, and not to females, they got together to seek each others’ counsel. They said to one another, “God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. For human beings have more compassion for males than for females. But the Holy Blessed One is not like that; God’s compassion extends to both males and females. God’scompassion extends to everyone, as it is written, ‘The Divine is good to all, and God’s mercy is upon all God’s works’  (from Ashrei, Psalm 145:9).” (Sifrei Bamidbar Pinchas 133)

Moses took these daughters’ claim before God, who ruled in their favor. By getting proximate to Moses and sharing their stories, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah enabled Moses and subsequent leaders to act more appropriately in the image of God.

The power of proximity and storytelling was used to tremendous effect by these brave women and continues to be used to tremendous effect in the realm of restorative justice in our day. This past year, as a community of conscience in the city of Chicago, members of Temple Sholom have become more active in the realm of racial justice. From civic and community engagement and investment to education reforms to shifting policies locally and nationally in the criminal justice system, we have explored and worked as allies in many avenues. One of the most powerful tools that we learned in responding to the cycle of violence and racism (and the radical othering that undergirds them) is Restorative Justice Circles. As described on the website restorativecircles.org, “A Restorative Circle is a community process for supporting those in conflict. It brings together three parties to a conflict– those who have acted, thosedirectly impacted and the wider community– within an intentional systemiccontext, to dialogue as equals.”

While statistics have been given in other places to testify to their success, I saw up close the impact of these circles’ ability to transform a group of others into a circle of equals. Several weeks ago, about a dozen members of our community went to a neighborhood called Back of the Yards (adjacent to Englewood) to sit inircle with youth from vulnerable neighborhoods to dialogue as equals. After Father Dave Kelly of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation set the tone for sacred listening by naming values, sounding a delicate bell, and reading Langston Hughes, he passed questions around the circle that caused us to open up and get proximate–not in geographical nearness, but in the closeness that comes with getting to know one another’s stories. One by one, we glimpsed some of the struggles and triumphs of the circle’s members. One young man—an artist and a poet—spoke of the tension in simply walking around his neighborhood. He constantly feels on guard and is compelled to act tough just to survive. Another participant– a detective whose district neighbors Back of the Yards—voiced his sorrow at arriving in this area time and again to attend to the details of one senseless killing after another.  Both of these men felt caught in a cycle of hopelessness. After sitting in circle together, the detective offered a ride home to the poet after realizing that the great distance the poet had traveled to get there (taking two different buses). At the end of our visit, they drove off together in a Subaru Outback.

While not exactly Isaiah’s vision of redemption, I do believe that this type of relating to one another as mutually significant in all of our humanity– sharing our anguish, celebrating our measures of triumph– has the power and possibility of paving the way to a new Chicago, a new nation, and a new world.   Separation and silence leads to othering; proximity and sharing stories leads to a compassionate justice that can endure. The challenge, of course, is meaningfully taking this methodology to scale so that relating in this way becomes the norm. It takes courage, in a world too quick to shut people up and shut people out, to share a vulnerability that makes us human and makes us holy. Yet, we’ve seen the effectiveness of this modality since the days of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah, Moses and Eleazar. As we read Parashat Pinchas in its entirety on Shabbat morning, Shabbat Mevarchim Av, may we use the wisdom of our parashah in the sharing that comes with proximity for consolation and deliverance.