My heart aches for those whose hearts are broken, for those who feel that this country has turned against them, for those who feel that no one cares if their child gets home safely and unharmed, for those who feel that the very systems of our society neglect them, and in fact criminalize them because of who they are and what they look like.
We often recall MLK’s I have a Dream speech in 1963, but I feel that this country is still haunted by Governor George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural speech, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” MLK, in fact, wrote his speech in reaction to Wallace.
The black community in America has continuously experienced terrible forms of racism, including redlining and overt attacks like lynchings. I remember the events in Detroit of 1967, and if you had told me that in 2020 we would still be facing issues of racism, discrimination and intolerance at the levels we are seeing now, I would not have believed it. Detroit had literally built brick walls, so whites would not have to see blacks. Is there any clearer expression of contempt? Is there any wonder at how much hurt and pain that caused?
There has been a great deal of discrimination against other groups in America, but only the black community was brought to America involuntarily. If you say that was a long time ago, and why keep bringing that up, what are you going to say to the people who said the Holocaust was a long time ago, and why do we keep bringing it up? Pain that never heals becomes a generational affliction, both to the victim and to the perpetrator. As a people who have suffered so much, we should be the most empathetic to the suffering of others.
Our sages understood that a society collapses if there is no trust in government and its ability to create justice. In Pirkei Avot, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: “on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: ‘execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates’ (Zechariah 8:16).”
The purpose of a justice system is to make sure that everyone without exception has their rights upheld and has the full protection of that system during the process of arrest, arraignment, trial, and if found guilty, penalty and incarceration. Being accused of a crime should not lead immediately to the death penalty. Most law enforcement officers know this and act honorably and well. The ones who do not must face the justice system. Otherwise, there will never be trust and credibility, there will never be a belief that the system is fair.
There is no excuse for violence or looting, but that does not remove the rights of other people to protest peacefully, which the vast majority have done.
The US Constitution guarantees the right of the people to assemble:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This was expanded by the Supreme Court in 1876:
United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876). The Supreme Court said that the “right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers and duties of the national government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and as such, under the protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States.”
The Torah tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our sages understand that all of humanity are our neighbors, because each person is loved by God. So many of our neighbors are in pain and need our love and kindness, not our judgment. We suffered throughout history, because others hated us for who we are. We can break that cycle of hate.
I do not have any easy answers or quick fixes. We can start, though, with open minds and ears, and most importantly, open hearts. We can never understand someone’s pain, but we can understand that they are in pain. We can demand justice and accountability from public servants. We can vote for those who stand for justice, and make sure that all voters’ rights are protected. We can donate to causes that reflect our values. We can remember that the Jewish people has always stood with the oppressed and against tyranny and injustice. We are the people of Moses, not Pharaoh.
Dr. King said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Let us fulfill his vision, and that of the Jewish prophet Amos, “Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.” Let us be the generation that brings this vision to life.
There is a reason that in the Ten Commandments, whose revelation we celebrate beginning tonight at Shavuot, the commandment of I am the Lord Your God is juxtaposed with Do Not Murder.
The great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that every commandment to not do something implied a commandment to do something. The commandment to not murder means to not allow murder to happen or to allow murderers to go unpunished.
When look the other way at injustice, even if we did not commit a crime ourselves, we remove God’s presence from the world. Standing up for others, standing with others, and standing for justice is not just part of Judaism. It is the very foundational idea. It is how we create the world that God can feel at home in.
This is a painting I did a number of years ago to celebrate the strength and courage of Ethiopian Jewry, who has lifted all of us to greater spiritual heights. It is a reminder that there is no “they” only “us.”