The Floyd family, and the events of this week have filled my mind with beautiful questions about the nature of prayer. I watched many different family members react to the verdict, and every one of them spoke about prayer. George’s brother, Philonese was described as sitting in the courtroom throughout the entire trial “in prayer.” Another brother, Terrence said: “I believe because of prayer, we got the verdict we wanted.” Speaking about prayer, a cousin of George’s said that over the last year the family was flooded by so much love coming their way that she doesn’t know whether she will see such love again in her lifetime. These are three very different attitudes toward prayer, each of which invites contemplation on what we mean when we use the word.
Of all of the powerful moments, though, perhaps the strongest was watching the Floyd family pray together, led by Reverend Sharpton. Before the words emerged, the Reverend had the family and close friends link arms, as if to say prayer is a physical uniting of people. It begins in the body, and continues so long as the bodies are united, so long as our bodies are praying. The family then lowered their heads, and remained in that position until the prayer was completed. One of the lines of prayer Sharpton spoke was also of a physical nature:
“We believe in a god who can even get through the cracks in a jury room.”
Jews have different ways of physicalizing prayer. We cover our eyes with our hands at times, wear a Talit, wrap ourselves in Tefilin. We stand still, we bow low, we dance three steps back and three steps forward. Outside of the traditional houses of prayer we “pray with our feet” at marches and rallies (Heschel). We “praise the great name through dance.” (Psalms) We “Love God with all your heart, with your entire body, and with everything you’ve got.” (Deuteronomy)
Rabbi Akiva was begged by his students to stop resisting the Romans who were torturing him to death. He told them his whole life he had been waiting for the opportunity to fulfill the commandment to “love God with your entire body,” and now he has that opportunity. His body is said to have expired as he uttered the word “Echad”, “One,” which ends the Shma: Adonai Echad, God is one.
I wonder whether George Floyd was praying in his last minutes. The very physical words he spoke: “I can’t breathe,” have since become a powerful prayer that has moved millions to take their bodies out to the streets to demand justice.
This evening’s Kumah Festival gathering will expand and explore many of these themes. Bringing together two dancers and a trumpet player we will try to touch upon how the body interacts with the world of spirit and of justice through dance. Davalois Fearon will share excerpts from a dance piece about her nephew who died of asthma due to medical and environmental racial disparities. Famed trumpeter Frank London will express breath and prayer through his horn. And Sarah Chien will dance live a Shabbat prayer at the close of this momentous week.
We can’t quite link arms tonight, but we can link screens, eyes and minds.
I hope you’ll join us tonight at 8pm.