I recently felt drawn to get involved in some community organizing work for an area of Central LA that has a very high population of gang members. For the sake of developing awareness and increasing safety measures, I took up the opportunity of getting a guided walking tour by a community member.
As we were walking, and learned more about the area, I began to understand the seriousness of the gang violence in the area.
While walking around the neighborhood we came across two people who were each holding a boa constrictor. Definitely not something I see everyday. Our group stopped to talk with them, and even let us hold them. We were all amazed and now distracted. The larger one, which was a yellow boa constrictor, weighed ninety-six pounds. The smaller one I held must have weighed half of that amount.
Finding Torah in unlikely places
I found it to be ironic that the boas captivated our attention, considering how snakes are so often feared. It was almost as if we had forgotten our fears, and let go of the stories in our heads, and became more present and in the moment.
As found in the story of Adam and Eve, it is the serpent that encourages Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, and God curses the serpent "above all animals," causing it to become an eternal enemy of the human race. Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. It is how the yetzer hara, the Evil Inclination, was born.
Similar to how the Tree of Knowledge represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil, in that moment the neighborhood I was walking through symbolized the blending of good and evil behavior. You have gang violence, but you also have the families hanging out in the front yard with their children laughing and playing.
When considering the yetzer tov and yetzer hara, or the "good" and "evil" impulses that all humans have according to our tradition, they are often looked at as the light and dark parts of the soul. Not that violence doesn't happen during the day, but I found it interesting how the light during the daytime provides some protection, and the darkness of the night is when violence occurs most. Those not affiliated with gangs have to be aware and figure out how to safely navigate the area, and usually don't go outside at night.
Considering the symbolism of the snake
I found that it was very symbolic for us to come across snakes, considering how snakes and criminals are often both associated with being harmful and having evil intentions.
As I held the smaller boa, I had another meaninful moment. You could sense that the snake initially felt vulnerable while being held, but in moments I could tell that the snake felt safe and secure.
I thought about the snake gently wrapping its body around me and using me as a source of support. And then I thought about how young people get wrapped up so tightly in gangs. While people get involved in gangs for many reasons, oftentimes it's because gangs provide a support system that they may have lacked and yearned for.
Seeing the humanity in all people
As a part of the NASW code of ethics for the social work profession, one of the main ones is about treating all human beings with dignity and giving them the best support possible, regardless of the harm that they have created through their actions. It's important to see the humanity in all populations. When we look at a gang members, we must try to not only see the criminal.
Through my own research on prison violence, I have learned true accounts of where gang members have showed profound compassion towards others. What was essential in those instances, was having head gang leaders model compassionate actions towards others. In return, seeing the leaders act compassionate gave the other gang members permission to let down their walls and also show compassion without it being held against them as a sign of weakness. It was a matter of personal safety.
The snake and High Holidays
During the high holidays, when we ask for repentance through the path of T’Shuvah, we are looking to transcend the darker parts of the soul. Similar to how the snake sheds its skin, may we all have the chance to shed ourselves of the darker parts of our being that may not serve us, or hold us back from acting from a place of love.