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.”
Based on The Torah Portion Mishpatim
Many people turn to religion because they have a deep spiritual hunger, and feel there is a hole in their heart or in their soul. They believe there are answers to life’s mysteries and solutions to all our problems. If we just prayed enough, or studied enough we would achieve enlightenment and perfect equanimity. We would never get angry again or sad. The world would no longer be scary.
Among this group are people who had one incredible spiritual moment, when everything came together and made sense.
They spend the rest of their lives chasing that feeling, but are usually frustrated. They believe if they could recreate that moment, all their problems would be solved. The moment never returns. Their lives are still confusing, and a day to day struggle to keep up.
This is a challenge even for clergy. Many of us became rabbis or cantors because we had one extraordinary moment, and then dedicated their lives to finding it again for themselves, or at least helping others find theirs. I will admit that I am one of them.
Many of us who pursue more spirituality oriented lives think that we will be enlightened at the end of the process, that we will never be thrown off balance, and that everyone will respond to our enlightenment by doing pretty much everything we say. This rarely happens.
Suzuki Roshi had a great comment. He said there are no enlightened people, just enlightened activities. That is, there is not permanent happy state of mind, only opportunities to be helpful and kind to others, opportunities to fight for the freedom and well being of others.
This is the overall theme of our Torah portion.
People had just stood at Sinai, the greatest revelation of God and spirituality in human history. They probably assumed everything would be perfect from then on. No more messiness, no more difficult relationships, no more real effort.
That is not what happens. In our Torah portion we see that life continued to be and endless series of challenges and dangers and unpredictable events. There are ethical dilemmas that are not solvable, only manageable.
As Jack Kornfeld puts it, after the ecstasy, you still have to do the laundry.
Religion is not about solving and fixing everything. It is not even about understanding everything. If that is what we are waiting to happen, we will wait for the rest of our lives in increased frustration, or we may just abandon the spiritual quest. Any religion or at least religious leader that promises that if you follow all of its tenets you will no longer have problems is either fraudulent or delusional.
I believe that we should try to understand things as much as possible, to make the attempt to understand how the world works, what motivates people and what matters most to us. We should study history and science and psychology and art. At some point though, we have to give up the idea that we can understand why everything happens, especially things that are painful. For some situations, there will never be satisfying answers.
What then is the ultimate value of religion? I cannot speak on behalf of other faiths. I would like to share what it is about Judaism that I find so helpful.
Judaism to me is about having the courage and strength to face those challenges, and the kindness and compassion to help other people face theirs. It is about knowing that we are part of a people who stood together at Sinai, and then struggled through an uncertain future together, until they made it into the promised land. And even then, they knew their work was not done. They knew that life is not a mystery to be solved, but an opportunity for growth in wisdom and kindness, for appreciating the treasure of our lives, and for helping others, both our loved ones and strangers, to live meaningful and loving lives.