This week it seems the world is talking about Trayvon Martin. All while my people are observing Tisha B’Av – one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar.
Tisha B’Av is a holiday in which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, twice. First due to idolatry and again for sinat chinam or baseless hatred. Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent verdict of “not guilty” for George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, is related to both.
In our world we idolize individuality. The individual right to do whatever makes you feel good – like “stand your ground” – even if others are hurt or killed. Couple this idolatry of individual rights and the oppression of people with marginalized identities and our laws create unjust situations where we value some individuality over others. Case in point is Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence survivor who fired a warning shot toward a wall, which injured no one, invoked “stand your ground” and received a 20-year sentence.
Trayvon Martin experienced baseless hatred the night he was murdered. Baseless hatred is often felt on an individual level but too often it begins from a systemic, institutional place. This kind of baseless hatred is raced and gendered. It’s systemic and perpetrated by police and civilians alike.
It’s a Jewish value to seek justice (tzedek tzedek tirdof). If I don’t work to change the systemic racism endemic in my nation, then I am no better than those who actively contribute to the systems. If I only work for justice when it directly impacts me, I’m doing it wrong. And making a mockery of every value Jewish value I claim to hold dear.
I was born into a system which gives me privilege by virtue of the color of my skin. It’s my job to recognize that and to educate others about it. It’s my job to recognize my own prejudices — not so I can beat myself up about them, but so I can unlearn them. And it’s my job to work toward a future in which racism and prejudice are eradicated; not only on an individual level, but on a societal and systemic level.
We’re reminded in Pirkei Avot, “it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task…but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.” It’s our obligation to begin to build a better world, a more just and righteous world for ourselves and our future generations.