I created this series for Lab/Shul. For context, here is what I shared around the video:
Where to begin? I struggled to find the words for this day; so I turned
to Our Mother, Toni Morrison. Her words bring me solace. She speaks Truth.
Here she is, in 1993. (Play clips from her 1993 - Jazz - Interview)
Here we are again. Rodney King to George Floyd.
This time we did not wait, we knew there would be no Justice.
There was none for Trayvon Martin, none for Sandra Bland, none for Philando Castile.
There was none for… So many Lives attached to names. Tamir Rice was twelve years old.
Breonna Taylor would have been twenty-seven yesterday.
Amidst the cries for a return to civil society, are the screams of Reality.
Society has not been civil to black people.
To pretend otherwise is to deny Reality and our history.
I refuse to do so, which is why I choose to share my spirit with you all today.
Together, let’s examine part of our history with Racism.
Let’s take a look at Numbers, a book of Light-and-Shadow.
It holds knowledge of what we did right and what we did wrong,
so we may learn from it all.
Hello friends, I’m Luis Burgos and I’ll be your Maven today, which comes from the Hebrew word mevin, to understand. Today I am your local storyteller, translator, interpreter, and commentator on the text of the Torah.
When I was writing this Storah, we were deep into Distancing and quarantining. In today’s portion, Miriam is stricken with leprosy and quarantined. It was so of the moment, I made a photo series to explore her quarantine. I wondered what her days looked like? Where she went? What she did?
And then I found out about Ahmaud Arbery and I had to rewrite my story. My questions became: Why did she say what she said that led to her sickness and quarantine? Who did she find herSelf to be when confronted with solitude? And how did she heal in body and mind? Let’s explore these questions.
If you able to rise, I invite us all to stand together
as we welcome the Torah.
Previously on, the Book of Numbers.
The Isrealites are in the desert, making their way to a Land of Promise. They’re been wandering for a while. Moses was exhausted after completing their census. Side note, be sure to count yourSelf in the US census, this is one way we can bring change. The collective total of people determines how many representatives we get in Congress. We need to represent ourselves.
Now back to the Torah, a plague spread across the land. There was great loss.
Miriam saw this.
For a moment, she loses her mind.
No longer in touch with Reality, she feels lost.
She lashes out with her brother Aaron. They criticize Moses for marrying a black woman, Zipporah.
Miriam is sick in the head, and then gets sick in her body, stricken with leprosy. So Shekhinah gives her a time out. (It should be noted, Aaron was not punished for his part. Another example of sexism in our text. Though today we are talking about Racism and how to heal from it.)
Let’s pick our story back up, we are in Numbers, Chapter Twelve.
This Aliyah is for anyone who feels lost. If you are unsure of how to move forward with the reality of this time, please join me. If you are in a quiet space, I invite you to unmute yourself so we may all lift our voices and sing.
My modern translation of verses 12.13-16:
Moses knew he had no control over the situation so he did what he could. He begged Shekhinah, “Please, Heal Her.”
They responded to his prayer, “Listen, there are consequences. She’s gotta choose healing for herself. She must choose her own way. Let her be quarantined alone for seven days, then she may come back to the people.”
So Miriam went into Quarantine, off by herself outside the camp, let’s call it a Healing Retreat. She suffered from her illness. She reflected on her suffering. She recognized the pain she caused others. She emerged from her isolation, changed and was greeted by the whole community, who had stayed where they were and waited for her to heal.
Once She was integrated back into the community, they all moved forward from where they were, deeper into the Wilderness.
I am Zipporah. My Miriam is a stranger in a white-pick-up-truck.
It’s 2017. September 11th. Like many Native New Yorkers, this is a day of trauma. I was on my morning run, thinking about the experience of that day in 2001. My mother and aunt were there. They didn’t have cell phones; we couldn’t afford them. We didn’t know if they were alive or dead until they came home, covered in dust. This is what I was thinking about as I jogged in place on the corner of Bixel and Seventh in Los Angeles, waiting for the light to change.
This is when I heard a stranger call me: F-ing-N-Word.
The words took some time to reach me. I looked around to see that I was the only black person there. I didn’t see who said it so I kept looking around, trying to figure out who dared dehumanize me. The people around me were silent.
I started to whisper, “Who said that?” First softly, to mySelf, then louder and louder until finally someone answered me. A man with his kids pointed at a stranger in a white pickup truck. I glared at them, filled with anger. To call someone the N-Word is to claim a whole person as Three-Fifths and to regard them as property, an object, a thing. This is a distortion of Reality. Black People are whole Beings. I turned back and faced the road ahead of me. The light changed and I went to finish my run.
As I began to cross the street, I heard the screeching of tires and saw this white pickup truck barrel towards me. There was no flight or fright; I felt confused. All I could think was, What Is Happening Right Now. I stood there, a spinning rainbow wheel. It did not compute. I locked eyes with the driver. I feel this is what saved me. They saw my confusion and understood the insanity of their actions. I feel they realized they were about to murder a stranger for the color of their skin. I stood rooted to the spot the entire time. When they were feet away from my body, they changed their mind and swerved to avoid me. I heard the tires screech again and my mind began to function once more. I realized what had just happened to me. I survived a hate crime.
I sprinted up this steep hill, trying my hardest to catch their license plate. But the light was green and they got away. At the top of the hill, I screamed my head off. I called the cops and told them what happened to me. When they came to hear my report, I was nervous to see them. I thought they might hurt me too.
I feel fear when I interact with the police because time and again I have witnessed how they may kill with no regard and no consequence. I learned this at age Nine with the murder of Amadou Diallo. His killers claim to have mistaken him for another black man. He attempted to show them his ID, to prove himSelf. They saw his gesture, his wallet, with the neurosis of Racism. They believed it was a gun. They shot him Forty-One Times. At one point, they reloaded their weapons to continue mutilating his dead body.
At the time we protested by holding up our wallets at cops. My best friend and I saw a police car driving by as we were walking home from school. We took out our wallets and held them up as they drove by. The white officer in the passenger seat gave us his middle finger.
Two little black boys in the South Bronx, protesting peacefully as the police flick them off.
This is not Civil.
The four officers who murdered Amadou Diallo were acquitted. One was recently promoted. This is how cycles continue. This is Injustice.
Amadou Diallo was killed in Soundview, where I took the photos for today’s Storah. Where I run four times a week. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while he was running. His story triggered me deep. The white truck, back again with a wave of despair. I survived. He did not. Black people are not martyrs, we are human. We wish to live with Peace. Just like Zipporah. Just like Miriam.
It would be easy to demonize Miriam and all racists. The truth is, we have tried demonizing them, ostracizing them, blocking them, and none of that has worked. So I choose a different path, a new one for me, though anyone familiar with the first civil rights movement knows the power of Love. It heals.
I healed through the practice of Loving-Kindness and forgiveness. I don’t mean forgiveness in a traditional sense. I mean: I don’t need to think about my attacker anymore. I imagine he’s miserable. He must be, to project such violent emotion. Maybe if he felt better, he wouldn’t attack people. So I wish him Love and Peace. I don’t need to see him. I don’t forgive what he did to me and I will never forget it. I forgive him in this moment by not wishing him ill.
May he heal. May he feel Love.
May I feel Love.
I imagine Miriam was miserable too at the moment; it’s hard enough being a woman today, let alone thousands of years ago. I believe she was already sick with leprosy and the fear of her physical illness led her to lose her mind and say what she did. The rules were, anyone with Leprosy was to be quarantined outside the camp for seven days; if the illness persisted, they were never to return. I imagine this unknown scared her and she lashed out to question Moses’ rule. Aaron tagged along, maybe because he wished he had his brother’s position of power. We already know from the golden calf, he was willing to defy Moses. My understanding of the Divine is not sexist; I don’t think Shekhinah would have punished Miriam and not Aaron. I don’t think she was punished. If I’m honest, it sounds like male ego trying to explain why a woman might suffer. And that my friends, is called bargaining. So today, instead of focusing on how and why Miriam suffered, I want to focus on how she healed in body and mind.
Questions for the Witness: What rituals and practices do you keep to heal/soothe your trauma?
Examples: Therapy, Meditation, Running, Shabbat, Passover, High Holidays, Tapping.
You may be wondering how I healed after surviving a hate crime; I’m about to show you. The thing about writing fiction, in this case Midrash, is that for it to feel authentic, it must be based in what you know. So I made Miriam’s healing journey mirror mine. I made my rituals and practices hers because at the end of the day, we are all human. Liberals are capable of being just as racist as anyone else, even if we’re unaware of it. So rather than imagine Miriam as some racist red-neck, I saw her as a tree-loving hiker who missed the mark. Let’s take a look at her story again. (Play video)
It was important to me that Miriam apologize because those incapable of an apology, deny their own humanity. We are human, which means we all make mistakes. We can only learn from them if we acknowledge them. To recognize an injustice is the first step towards changing it.
And when it comes to implicit bias, there is a Miriam in all of us. Being aware of this, allows us to address our pre-judgements and work to change them. This is how we heal. So the question now becomes, what do you do once we are healed?
Question for the Witness: How can you use your skills and something you love about yourSelf, to bring about creative change?
Here’s how I’m doing just that. This maven experience is one way that I am using creative action to address Racism. I love photography and I love literature so I used both to address this moment. I also love running and planning so another creative action I am taking is a 10K I am planning with Lab/Shul in honor of Ahmaud Arbery for the Spring of 2021. I partnered with Sarah Strnad. We decided to raise 10K for the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. A POC lead non-profit that does the work of Anti-Racism, teaching others about implicit bias.
May we move past any denial of our human biases so we may address them.
May we move past the Denial and Anger of this moment.
What we are experiencing now, is part of the grief we need to experience in order to move forward.
May we allow ourselves to feel the Sadness of our History.
May we stop bargaining to forget our history or act as if it’s all Light when in fact, there is no Light without Shadow and no Shadow without Light.
That is Reality, may we accept it.
May we move forward with Loving-Kindness. This practice allows me to offer Love with Equanimity as I feel anger or pain. I start by offering Love to mySelf, from there I offer it to my family, to my friends, and strangers. Whenever I feel Fear, I turn to Loving-Kindness.
To my white sisters and others and brothers, if you are afraid of being emotionally attacked for missing the mark unintentionally, please do not allow this fear to stop you from asking questions and trying to do better. If a black person calls you out, listen to understand, reflect, and aim to do better as you move forward. If you don’t understand, keep asking questions. We feel just as uncomfortable as you do. I ask you to please be brave with your discomfort or fear as you work towards creative action. I live with the fear that I will be physically attacked everyday. I face that Fear so that I may live with intention, purpose, and Love. Be brave. When I feel unsafe, I think to myself:
May I feel Safe.
May I feel Love.
May it be so for all.
May there be Justice that leads to Peace.
May we all heal from the traumas of Racism and Plagues.
May we make Heaven on Earth by repairing it, one day at a time.
One action at a time. It all adds up, in the end.