Where do I start? Where can any of us start as we watch the world around us convulsing?
For days I have woken up to news of growing protests and confrontations between protestors and police. I have gone to bed concerned about what would happen that night. I have lamented as those in our society meant to work to heal pain have instead inflicted it and exacerbated it.
I have sought the right words to console our community as we mourn George Floyd, a man killed at the hands of someone sworn to protect and serve him. Finding such words has been struggle, because this moment is so big and part of a much larger story that goes back to the very beginning of our nation. The systemic racism that is being protested in cities around the country is everywhere, obvious and invisible at the same time.
All of this is exacerbated by the ongoing isolation and restrictions placed on us by the pandemic. I struggle to know what to do, what impact I can have when I cannot safely gather with other people.
I return therefore, to three basic principles.
The rabbis teach in the Mishnah that when a case is being tried in court, it is essential that all involved understand the sanctity of every life. They teach:
נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ... שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ אַבָּא גָדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ
A single person was created in the world, to teach…peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”.
(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
From this, we are meant to understand that equality is meant to be the foundation, not only in our community, but throughout the world. Whenever that basic principle is not upheld, Creation itself is dishonored.
Over and over again in the Torah, the God instructs the Israelites to care for the stranger. In Exodus, the reasoning is made explicit:
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
As Jews, we have suffered throughout our history because of our identity and our beliefs. We have been excluded, rejected, oppressed, and killed. The Torah teaches us that this experience must color how we view the world around us, so that we refuse to be a part of the oppression of anyone else.
Most importantly in this moment, we need to be guided by the Holiness Code, the central point in the central book of the Torah. The laws contained in this Code teach many of the values necessary for a just society and a decent humanity. We are taught:
לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה'׃
Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
This instruction, punctuated by a reminder that these laws come from God, tells us that we have a responsibility to act when we see someone suffering, even – according to our Sages – when our own interests might run to the contrary.
We must recognize the equal value of every person.
We must empathize with those who suffer.
We must work for justice when injustice is done.
Our PJC community is diverse. We are blessed to have members of many backgrounds and many ethnicities. In this way, we are reflective of the wider Jewish world. We need to check in with one another in this moment of increased tension and fear. We declare the PJC to be our home; moments like this, when our society is suffering, are when we need “home” the most.
We must hold one another. We must take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities. Those of us who have the privilege to be able to protest and have our voices heard in this moment, must do so.
This cannot be the end of the conversation in our community. We must feel the urgency of this moment and act accordingly. Below are links to statements released by the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbinic association of which I am a member) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (the school that ordained me, and where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught). There are also links to further reading on this subject. I encourage each of you to make as much time as you can to read them. I will continue teach and speak on this in the days to come.
May the One who makes peace in the heavens, bring peace to us, to all of Israel, and to all the inhabitants of the world.
Rabbi Alex Salzberg