I was in the middle of second grade when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The decades of Apartheid were officially over. When we returned from winter break that year, our teacher announced that we had two new students joining the class. Two black students.
I had never spoken to a black person my own age. I can still recall the shock and awkwardness of these two kids being led into an all white public school classroom. One of them was seated right in front of me. I was mortified to be so close to a black child. I don't know why. He just seemed so different.
Later that day, I raised my hand and told the teacher that I was having trouble seeing the board. I remember thinking that this would work. But she was smarter than me. She rearranged the room so that I would be sitting in the front row of the classroom; sharing a desk with the black girl who joined our class that day.
It's taken me many years to decondition myself from growing up in a fundamentally racist society. In some ways, I wonder if I'll ever rid myself of this sickness entirely. No one told me to fear or hate black people. Yet the way that people speak and act influence the way that society thinks. And I was part of that society.
This idea is brilliantly and famously expressed by the Sefer HaChinuch: (מצוה טז) אחרי הפעולות נמשכות הלבבות - Our emotions are influenced by our actions. Reb Aharon of Karlin (בית אהרן ליקוטים פא) explained that this phenomenon is true even if our actions were forced. We have all observed and experienced how our habits and behaviors shape our perspectives. And the more we persevere in a particular habit, the deeper its underlying philosophy becomes a part of us. This is why Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave us so many mitzvos - רצה הקב"ה לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוות. He wished to ensure that we became good people. So He gave us actions to do that would transform us from the narcissism of infancy to the transcendence of connecting to Him.
This week, in the final week of zoom-classes for the year, I discussed with my students the current events prevailing over the media and news feeds. It goes without saying that spilling the blood of Gorge Floyd was egregious and evil. Period. And we, Jews who are attempting to be Yarei Shamayim and Ohavei Hashem are left wondering what we are to do in our bubbles of life and in our sphere of influence. Is there even a concrete thing that we can do? I think there is. Specifically, it's changing the way we speak.
Most of the people I interact with are not overtly racist. Indeed, most of our community considers racism the depths of depravity. But even in our community, we are not immune. Consider for example the word shvartzer. It's a word with a long history of usage (which is not for now...). But however it was once used, practically today, the connotation of this word for most frum Jews is a sanitized, Yiddishized, surreptitious substitute for the N-word. It conjures and projects the same prejudices and disdain under the cover of unobtrusive frumkeit. And when our friends and neighbors and kids hear it, they translate it in their minds into the common parlance of the N-word.
It's not the only example. Sometimes we convey disdain through words, sometimes, tones of voice. Sometimes by omissions, and sometimes by comparisons. Sometimes, by turning to face away from another human being, or by turning up our noses towards them. (Rav Blachman told me that Rav Hutner said a person can commit murder simply by turning up their nose - it's a posuk in Vayechi: כי באפם הרגו איש.)
But the words and tones and facial expressions we use influence the way we think. The way we think influences the way we act. And our actions build or destroy the world around us.
As the news floods with more pain from people in the black community, I'm still trying hard to eradicate any smear of the irrational hatred of Apartheid South Africa. I'm trying to remember that the Ribono Shel Olam has brought each and every soul into this world with purpose. I hope that you'll join me.