Finding The Breath To Find The Words

Finding The Breath To Find The Words

It usually doesn’t take me this long to find words for something, but the murder of George Floyd has me speechless.

As a rabbi, I see it as my job to help frame things happening in people’s lives with perspective on the human condition, Jewish values that can ground us, and courses of action people can take to add communal force to the build-up of good in the world.

But I’m having trouble doing that.

My teacher, Shai Held, explains that between thought and action there is a breath. And if there is time for a breath, there is time for a thought. And if there is time for a thought, there is time for a choice. And it’s choice that begins to distance us from our instincts and distinguishes us from other animals.

But George Floyd was not allowed to breathe. He was not given the opportunity to be human. He was treated like an animal.

Usually, it is that breath that helps me find thought and some perspective. But George Floyd was not allowed to breathe. He was not allowed to sufficiently fill his lungs with air, air that belongs to none of us, so that he could keep himself alive. Right now, finding that distancing breath feels both necessary and almost impossible.

So I won’t seek any distance. I’ll stay with George Floyd on the pavement. His body lying down on the oil-stained, litter-strewn street near the curb and the gutter.

I’ve seen the video and I can’t get it out of my head.

I understand that police officers sometimes have to use force in order to control people who are threatening to them physically or resisting arrest. I can’t imagine the persistent latent and active fear police officers live with. The constant need to restrain their personal feelings, keep calm in the midst of chaos. I am unsurprised that even given ongoing training that there are still moments when the cuffs go on tighter, an arm is pulled harder or a knee pushes into a back a moment past submission.

If we want human beings to be law enforcement, we are going to have to accept their frailties as we accept our own.

But I’m on that pavement and I see Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd struggles at first. And then the pressure is applied. That’s when we hear him cry out…

“God it’s my face man
I didn’t do nothing serious man
Please
Please
Please I can’t breathe
please man
please somebody
please man
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please
(inaudible)…”

I was once playing football in grade school and running with the ball. A member of the other team tackled me at the same time as someone else. Then a third piled on. The air went out of my lungs and I couldn’t get enough room in my chest to let my lungs expand. I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly talk and kept begging, but not loud enough for them to hear. I felt a terrifying panic. Do they hear me? Do they care?

“I can’t move
mama
mama
I can’t
my knee…
I’m through
I’m through
I’m claustrophobic
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
everything hurts
some water or something
please
please…”

The Torah tells us that Cain said something to Abel just before he killed him in the field, but we are not told what it was. The medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimchi imagined that Cain said to Abel “there is no justice and no judge in the universe.” To which Abel said, “there is justice and there is a judge. The world was created as an act of love.” Cain replied, “there is no love.” Cain ended the argument by killing his brother. Proving there is no justice, no judge and no love.

“I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me
they gon kill me man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they gon kill me
they gon kill me
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please sir
please
please
please I can’t breathe.”

And that was the last we heard from George Floyd before he passed out. For 3 more minutes while Floyd was unresponsive, Derek Chauvin with his hand in his pocket, calmly kept applying pressure to Floyd’s neck.

When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain did not try to deny what he had done, he did not express regret, he rejected the very question. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Calmly, with his hand in his pocket, he wondered why his brother’s whereabouts, alive or dead, should be of concern to him. No justice. No judge. No love.

I can’t get past the fact that George Floyd called out for his mother even though she is no longer alive. Most of us stop calling out for our mother when we are able to care for ourselves and when we are reasonably sure the world cares about us. Alone in that field, while his brother was smothering the life from him, did Abel cry out for Eve?

Derek Chauvin was in a uniform that represents justice and judgment. He was acting in that moment with the full authority of our justice system. We can hope our system will hold him accountable, but in the moment he was acting in public, on camera he was projecting a version of authority unmoved by the humanity it was snuffing out.

I don’t need statistics. I don’t need data. I don’t need someone to explain it to me until I’m convinced. Enough black people have told me their experience in this country with law enforcement is different than mine. There is no Jewish conspiracy to convince the world that Antisemitism is real. It’s real and the fact that I feel it should be enough for someone who is not Jewish to believe me. A black person should not have to experience racism in this country and from law enforcement and then bear the extra burden of proving it to me.

When someone tells you how they feel and you answer with an argument for why they shouldn’t feel that way, quite often the goal is not to help that person but to absolve oneself of the responsibility of sharing their burden.

There are many things we tend to do to avoid sharing in someone else’s pain and holding responsibility for addressing it.

We are seeing that with the focus on looting. Of course, looting is wrong, criminal and unproductive. Those who are victims of it deserve justice. And we have to ask ourselves if focusing on it is easier than sitting on the pavement with George Floyd and acknowledging that so many Blacks fear his fate.

There is a virus that has made it so hard to breathe for 100,000 people that they were suffocated by it. But a virus is amoral. It has no eyes to see what it is doing. A human being was gifted with sight and when Abraham Joshua Heschel called racism “a disease of the eye,” he was identifying it as a moral disease. It’s a choice. Because we can breathe, we can think. And because we can think, we can make choices. The choice to deny the right of another person to breathe because of their skin is a moral disease for which we have found no vaccine.

I don’t remember if I called out for my mom when I was beneath that pile of bodies, but I remember catching a glimpse of hopelessness.

No one should ever feel that for a moment. No one should live their life that way.


Rabbi Aaron Brusso

Aaron Brusso is a rabbi at Bet Torah in Mt Kisco. He is an officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative rabbis, a Shalom Hartman Institute Senior Fellow and recently received the Human Rights Award from T’ruah for his work on immigration.

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