#Blacklivesmatter Starts with the Soul

Photo courtesy of Otto Yamamoto
Photo courtesy of Otto Yamamoto

As I look at the headlines, I see continuing fallout from police killing another black man, this time in Baltimore. It’s easy for me to forget that humans are created with a soulful wholeness, what the Torah calls tzelem Elohim, or “the image of God.”

We cannot live as if we are made in the image of God when we do not live in a world in which, according to Rabbi Arthur Green, “Every human being is the image of God. Every creature and life-form is a garbing of divine presence.”

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? According to Torah, it means we need to act like we are all made in God’s image. This week’s portion (Emor) concludes the list of ways we need to act to affirm our own and one other’s holiness. This list began (in Kedoshim) “You should be holy because I am holy.” That we are made in the image of God means we need to act in godly ways.

These ways include the well-known, “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am God” (Leviticus, 19:18), “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow: I am God” (Lev 19:16), and the lesser known “Have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: I am God” (Leviticus 24:22)”. The repetition of “I am God” at the end of each of these precepts implies that the very act of following each of these behaviors affirms God’s image in the world.

We can only live into the wholeness of our souls by creating a world that is built on a foundation of dignity, justice, and love. And, yes, we are responsible for creating this world. As Green writes, “The way in which we treat [all people] and relate to them is the only true testing-ground of our own religious consciousness.”

I see this echoed in our need to affirm again…and again…and yet again that #BlackLivesMatter.

Yes, the police in Baltimore, Ferguson and throughout America must be made accountable for their actions. But police do not operate in a vacuum: as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The police operate within the social norms that we have had some hand in shaping, condoning, or perhaps silently witnessing.

When we cede to the demoralizing demands of the world, and the way they mold our institutions, the shape of our soul is deformed. Even if we are not organizing, or protesting in the streets, it’s time all of us stopped and made some time for heshbon hanefesh, a “soul accounting” about how we might be complicit, and how being complicit distorts our soul.

Over the last decade, I’ve grappled with the realization that I grew up in a racist, classist, homophobic, anti-semitic culture. I daily struggle with the way these ideologies shape my reactions to myself and to others around me.

In the spirit of healing, as we read the headlines this week, I invite us to ask ourselves how we can respond soulfully to our world, and affirm God’s presence all around us. What set of beliefs have we inherited that deny not only our own humanity, but affirm our institutions’ rights to rob others of their humanity? How can we bring more awareness to the oppressive beliefs that have been inculcated into us so that we can begin to mindfully reshape our world?

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