I am overcome with grief for the Black lives lost because of our society's inability to confront racism and privilege. I am outraged for all Black men and women who must live with this reality. Last week two more Black men perished at the hands of police--Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the most recent tragedies in a long list.
A friend told me today that she has to teach her 20-year old son a script for responding at traffic stops, complete with tone and movement - "I am reaching to get my wallet now, to pull out my license." Want to know what my "script" for responding at a traffic stop was at age 20? Something about having my period and being distracted from driving because I needed to find a place to buy tampons--ways to get out of the ticket. Keeping myself alive never entered into my consciousness.
When I listen to myself sing "we shall overcome," I hear the privilege in my own voice. I cringe at the presumptuousness of covering an anthem the origins of which I cannot claim to grasp. I hear the slow and deep echoes of call-and-response chanting that may not strike the right mood for this moment's injustices. And somewhere in the silence behind those aspirational words, I hear the urgent, impassioned call of "no justice, no peace."
In kirtan, we repeat words until they lose their limited worldly meaning and melt into pure (if complex) emotions. In repetitive chanting we find ha-Makom--a name for God that means "place." Finding ha-Makom is achieving clarity in the chaos, and sometimes--not necessarily and not always and maybe not yet--comfort and peace.
The Jewish Shabbat morning liturgy pauses before returning the Torah to the ark to say a prayer for our country, a prayer for the state of Israel, and a prayer for peace. English wording from siddur sim shalom:
May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease, when a great peace will embrace the whole world. Then nation will not threaten nation, and mankind will not again know war. For all who live on earth shall realize we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
And after the evening Shema, our prayers include the Hashkivenu, which begins, (again from siddur sim shalom) "Help us, Adonai, to lie down in peace, and awaken us again, our Sovereign, to life."
And at the close of every Amidah we return to earth from that divine, boundary-less space before God by meditating "Ose shalom bimromav...." "May the One who brings peace to the universe bring peace to us and to all." (The traditional liturgy says "to all Israel," but many including me add v'al kol yosh vey tey veyl "and to the whole world.")
For Jews who wish to ensure that we remain mindful of this work to be done, these spaces present opportunities to incorporate "We Shall Overcome" as part of our spiritual practice, to inspire us to overcome the fear that inhibits us from taking a stand. Invite yourself to sing "ose shalom" to the original hymn's tune. Reflect on the word of the Hashkivenu--perhaps even in moments of righteous turmoil, lying down in peace is what we need to "rise again to life," to action.
We offer this chant. It is not enough. It may not even be appropriate.
But now it is yours to find ha-Makom in, to struggle with.