People raising their fists
People raising their fists

The summer we moved to Detroit, Mike Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Mo. That fall, when the non-indictment was announced, Justin and I joined with hundreds of Detroiters in protest. 

Parshat Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Malachi 3:4-24. (Shabbat HaGadol)

Business, the protesters claimed, must not go on as usual. Justin participated in a march onto the freeway and spent the night in jail. The next Shabbat, he was called up for an aliyah to the Torah and an opportunity to bench gomel, the blessing of Thanksgiving following a journey or dangerous ordeal.

The gomel blessing is linked to the thanksgiving offering we learn about in this week’s portion. The Talmud turns to Psalm 107 to understand who should recite the gomel prayer, and Rashi, too, looks there for examples of who might be called to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving:

“One who goes down into the sea or crosses the desert or who is bound in a jail or one who is sick and recovers they must give thanks, as it is written of them” (Psalms 107:21): “Let them praise Adonai for God’s steadfast love, God’s wondrous deeds for humanity. Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and tell God’s deeds in joyful song.”

Of course, Justin is well-aware that his intentional breaking of the law as a person with a whole host of privileges, including skilled lawyers at the ready, is worlds apart from the experiences of most trapped in the vicious cycle of the prison-industrial complex. Yet, I can say from experience that the relative safe passage ensured by race privilege only somewhat pacifies the fear that comes along with such surrender and descent into darkness.

I imagine Justin, and all those putting their bodies on the line, at the altar of the Holy Temple. Offering their privilege, their time, their fear, their bodies in sacrifice: a guilt offering, a sin offering and a well-being offering. Their bravery calls to mind the words of Psalm 107: “Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death … Let them give praise to God for God’s kindness.”

Choice or not, civil disobedience is an act of faith, an act that says: I will use my God-given body to fight for the freedom and dignity of God’s creatures, and I believe that it will make a difference.

This spring, Detroit Jews for Justice will join activists around the country in the Poor People’s Campaign, a revival of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement to “challenge evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.” We will march; we will sing; and we will offer our bodies in sacrifice and thanksgiving because we know another world is possible if we will only build it.

In the words of Dr. King, “We are coming to Washington [and Lansing] in a poor people’s campaign. […] we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action; to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”

We hope you will join us.

Rabbi Alana Alpert
Rabbi Alana Alpert

Alana Alpert is rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah and the director of Detroit Jews for Justice.


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