The power of our past to define our future

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, literally “The Life of Sarah”, we are informed of her passing.

The Torah states: “These are the years  of the life of Sarah 100 years, twenty years and seven years the years of her life”. Rashi noting the seeming repetition of the phrase years of her life comments that “all the years of her life were equally good”. The statement of Rashi is baffling. Sarah’s life was tumultuous and full of ordeals and crisis from being barren to having to survive ordeals in Egypt in hiding.

So why were her years “equally good”?

There is a midrashic passage which attempts to answer this question:

“Rabbi Akiva was sitting and expounding Torah. His audience fell asleep. He tried to awaken them, and said, ‘What motivated Queen Esther to reign over one hundred and twenty and seven provinces? We must assume that Esther, as a descendant of Sarah who lived for one hundred and twenty and seven years, considered it proper to reign over one hundred and twenty and seven provinces.’” (Bereshit Rabbah)

The cryptic response has baffled the greatest of minds. Rav Tzadok offers a most magnificent exposition in an attempt to unlock this comparison. He suggests that the medrash is drawing a parallel through the number of 127 between the life experienced by Esther to that of Sarah.

Queen Esther, having discovered the plot of Haman to  wipe out the Jewish people, chose to take her life in her own hands, by entering into the Royal chamber uninvited. Her action, she knew, was signing her own death warrant. Yet, on entering, the King noticed her presence carried with it an aura of holiness. The presence captivated the king’s heart and he was so impressed and overwhelmed that he granted her permission to enter despite her disregard for the Royal etiquette.

One may wonder where Esther’s holy  presence originates from? Rav Tzadokk suggests that it could be traced back to her great-relative, the matriarch Sarah, whom she took as a role model.  Sarah lived a full life  reaching levels of  outstanding holiness in mind and  body.

However, Sarah came from the most humble of beginnings. Her whole family were idol worshippers and vehemently opposed the ideal of monotheism that her husband Abraham seeked to establish in humanity. Sarah herself spent years of her life battling and struggling to detach herself completely from the depraved philosophy of  the idolatry at the time. Gradually, she was able to transform herself and become an elevated sanctified individual.

Far from her dark and  idolatrous past hindering her progress and elevation to become a paragon of virtue,  she successfully utilized her lowly past as a springboard and catalyst to spur her on to achieving spiritual greatness not in spite of her past but because of it. Her humble background enabled her to nurture a sense of genuine humility  and gratitude to G-d  for eventually leading her to the path of truth and justice.

Queen Esther could have been forgiven for succumbing to fear and despair and a sense of being abandoned by G-d . She found herself in a seemingly impossible position, trapped in the Palace married to a non Jewish  King who had signed a decree for the annihilation of her people, cut off from her people  many who felt at the time had been betrayed by her. Her people were facing annihilation and she seemed  helpless.

Esther refused to fall into this trap, She recalled her matriarch Sarah who refused to allow dejection and self pity to rule her.  Esther recognized that there is no such thing as coincidence or finding oneself stuck in any given situation. If she was a Jewess alone in the Royal palace, there must be a purpose and meaning to G-d wanting her to be there . This awareness catapulted her to greater spiritual heights not despite but because of it . Like Sarah, her past, rather than allow it to  define her, transformed her into a vehicle for positivity, change and growth.

When Rabbi Akiva students were dozing off during the lecture, he sensed  they had despaired from reaching new and greater heights in their Torah wisdom – convincing themselves to be unworthy of venturing to new levels. It wasn’t who they believed they were, based on their past.

It was for this reason that the great Rabbi Akiva chose to teach his students this timeless lesson from the life of Sarah – rather than limit us, our pasts can be the making of us. Sarah lived 127 years and all of them were equally good. That is not to suggest that she didn’t face tremendous challenges and ordeals in her tumultuous life, but the Torah is underlining the fact in her eyes everything she achieved was built on the back of the  vicissitudes of life that she faced.  In retrospect, therefore, they were all equally good in being for her benefit .

Philosophically, this idea is played out most glaringly, in the work of Victor E Frankl. As the late Rabbi Sacks notes, in his Covenant and Conversation, Frankl was a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz where he helped many people recover the will to live. When the war was over, he founded a new school of psychotherapy—he called it Logotherapy—based on what he called “man’s will to meaning.” Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us.

This is the Sarah weltanschauung – my past can be the making of me, not limit me. Rather than search for external gratification, search for answers in the heart. This is arrogance. Rather, it is pure faith.

Times of Israel 12 November 2020

By Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch & Daniel Sher

Clinging to our Tree of Life

This week, I came across the remarkable story of a family in Boca Raton, Florida that had featured on several news bulletins; Paul and Tammy Clarke’s  family home had caught fire and in a matter of a few hours their house and almost everything they owned went up in smoke.

As they stood outside their once beautiful home witnessing their possessions, the ordinary, the valuable and the sentimental disappearing in flames, a fireman emerged from their destroyed house  and presented them with their 100 year old  family Torah scroll.

He told the astonished family that despite the fire, the smoke and the hundreds of gallons of water used to extinguish the flames,  somehow the Torah Scroll had managed to survive intact.

The family were overjoyed, and the fireman was baffled as to why this ancient scroll of parchment should bring such joy, amidst the destruction and loss of so many other possessions that surrounded them in the burnt remnants of their home.

We begin this week a period of national mourning over another home that was burned, our first and second temples. The mourning period we experience as a nation is not so much over the destruction of bricks and mortar of the two  Temples, physical things can always be replaced or rebuilt, but is more to do with what that loss and our subsequent exile represents.

The Temple was the home we built for the Almighty’s presence to dwell in this world, the Temple was the space we made for the Divine presence to dwell in our lives.  Its loss symbolized the fact we were no longer worthy of that continued close bond and connection.

Over the course of the millennia there have  been two diametrically opposite approaches that our nation has taken in terms of the world we live in. They can be loosely defined as the “universal” as opposed to the “particular” approach.

For so much of our history we had no choice in the way we lived, and survived  within Non Jewish nations . We faced harsh persecution, isolation and alienation and found ourselves nomadic as we were kicked from one place to another.  By default, we were forced to take the “particular” approach, living separately in shtetls and ghettos, depicted as second class citizens as we  lived, worked and socialized in the main with only our own kind. We were, in the words of Bilaam “a nation that dwells alone.” Inevitably, we had a constant awareness of our Jewish identity and very strong sense of community.

Emancipation transformed the fortunes and opportunities for Jews. By the end of the nineteenth century Vienna, Berlin and Prague had turned into academic and cultural centers with Jews playing prominent roles  Jews were able to move about freely, they migrated to those cities where they had better opportunities to earn a living, expand their businesses, study or start a career. This was a period of universalism, Jews in western Europe became integrated and assimilated into wider society. By 1925 in Germany, 26 per cent of all lawyers and 15 per cent of all doctors were Jewish, yet Jews constituted only one per cent of the general population.

Yet despite the academic excellence, cultural achievements and pride Jews enjoyed in Western Europe, it came at a price – with many abandoning the Jewish identity which was felt to have held them back for far too long.

The results of the “universalist” experiment was nothing short of disastrous. Thousands of Jews were lost to our nation. Having deluded themselves that becoming “more German than the Germans” was the insurance policy against the treatment of Jews for centuries. 

Yet as the Holocaust unfolded,  in the concentration camps and the death  camps, Jews  from Eastern  and Western Europe met.  No longer could they be recognised apart as they had been stripped of everything they owned. Their status and positions, their wealth and possessions, were for nothing, like their unassimilated Eastern European kin, they were left with only a number on their arms. However, it was in those camps, stripped bare of their previous lives, that many discovered who they were and what it meant to be a Jew.

The Talmud tells us of another time in our history, when Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon went to visit Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma whom had been taken sick.  Rabbi Kisma said, “Chanaya my brother, don’t you know that this nation [the Roman Empire] has been empowered by Heaven, allowed to destroy His House, burn his Sanctuary, kill His pious ones.  They will burn you and the Sifrei Torah together…”

Indeed, the Roman Empire wreaked destruction upon the Jewish Community, sparing no one.  Certainly not Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon.  True to Rabbi Kisma’s vision, Rabbi Chananya was burned at the stake, wrapped in the blessed Torah scroll.  The Romans had placed moist cotton over his heart to prolong the process of his death, increasing his pain and agony.

As the righteous Rabbi was burning with the Sefer Torah, the Romans mocked him by deriding him with the obvious.  “Oh, teacher.  Do you see the flames consuming you?”

His disciples came close, feeling the heat from the fire as they drew closer still.  “Rabbi, what do you see?”

Incredibly, a smile flickered across the rabbi’s lips.  “I see the parchment being consumed by the flames,” he said.  “But the letters… the letters I see flying off.  They remain.”

It is precisely at times of tremendous adversity and ordeal that we sometimes are able to arrive at a fresh appreciation as to who we are and the blessings that we have in our lives

As the Clarke family stood watching their house and possessions go up in flames, they managed to focus not so much on what they had lost, but what had been saved.  That precious family  heirloom, their Sefer Torah, passed from generation to generation was miraculously saved, a message of hope and consolation to them and to us as to the essence and purpose of life.

It is never the things we can buy in this world that has lasting value . For Jews it is about a clear emphasis on the transcendence in the letters of the Torah, and   the space we create in all aspects of our busy  lives for our faith and for G-d, this is what can never be taken away, – no matter what life throws at us.

We sing when we return the Torah to the Ark every Shabbat

“Eitz Chayim hi lemachazakim ba” – the Torah is the Tree of Life for those who hold onto it. The comparison of our faith to a tree is well known. We are the leaves of that tree, and as long we remain attached we are invincible,  but if we become detached from that life source, despite the short lived new found freedom, leaves quickly flutter to the ground, whither and die.

And so it is with us now. We can grow however we like, no longer do we need to be confined and live isolated from the rest of society, but once we disconnect from our life force, our Torah, like the leaf on the tree, we flutter, we shrivel, and we eventually get lost and brushed away.

(Published Times of Israel 13/07/20)

Jewish and Privileged

Nationwide protests over inequality are encouraging more conversations not only about race but also about white privilege.  For many of us it is something abstract, conceptual but difficult to relate to. As American sociologist, Michael Kimmel put it succinctly: “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

Historically, white privilege was often described through the lens of Peggy McIntosh’s ground breaking essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The idea of white privilege as unseen, unconscious advantages took hold. Her list of white privileges makes the idea of privilege exceptionally palatable.

For example: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group” or “If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.” Taken together, McIntosh’s list reveals a privilege she never explicitly states: the privilege to feel ordinary unexceptional.

And yet white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

Dr Francis E Kendall, author of Understanding White Privilege, a book which delves into the complex interplay between race, power, and privilege in both organisations and private life said the answer “is very visible for those to whom privilege was not granted.”

It can be viewed as asking fish to notice water or birds to discuss air. For those who have privileges based on race or gender or class or physical ability or sexual orientation, or age, it just is– it’s normal. Kendall goes on to say, “There is growing recognition that privilege in this sense is symptomatic of racism and is in need of being snuffed out systemically”. This is something we all can agree with and should have no place in our society in the 21st century.

Whilst recognising how wrong white privilege is, it’s important at the same time to acknowledge that part and parcel of life is the privilege. Each of us, as members of humanity are cast a different lot, born with innate qualities, different personal attributes and capabilities and potential. For some they may be creative and artistic others may be musically inclined and others may be athletic. All the talents that we have are privileges. One need not feel a sense of embarrassment or be apologetic for the gifts that we have been endowed which give us a natural advantage over others. Our society is built on a system of meritocracy. Provided that it is genuinely a level playing field, one can be proud of the opportunities and privileges that accrue from our sweat and toil in life.

The public dialogue in this regard has left me curious as to our position as Jews, as a race and nation. Is not an integral aspect of our faith of us being privileged?  Very often, people squirm uncomfortably at hearing us being referred to by the phraseology “chosen people” feeling that there is a whiff of   racism in lauding ourselves over others as a superior race.

In truth, the concept is often misconstrued and misunderstood. The Hebrew phraseology utilised by the Torah refers to us as an “Am Segulah” often taken to mean “Chosen People”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch avers that a more accurate meaning of us being an “Am Segula” is that of us being a unique people, reflecting the unique role we must play amongst the family of nations.

The sources suggest that the seventy nations of the world are each unique, with their own individual characteristics that are indispensable. In each nation, ethnicity plays a different instrument without which the symphony of humanity would be incomplete.

Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi stated in this regard “I believe that every people – and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual – is ‘chosen’ or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only some fulfil their mission and others do not. Perhaps the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be peculiar unto Me as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was, and is, their national purpose.”

The unique and privileged position of the Jewish people in the symphony of humanity is that we are expected to be the conductor. It is our mission to create the most majestic masterpiece by conducting the nations of the world, a responsibility for us to lead the world to its completion.

For so much of our history we have found ourselves exiled amongst other nations. The Talmud states that the idea of us being scattered in this way is to find converts. This is obviously a baffling and cryptic statement considering we are a faith that does not look to proselytize others. Rav Tzadok Hakohen, one of the deep mystical thinkers offered a novel interpretation. Being scattered in exile he suggests, is not intended for us to find converts, but on a deeper level to bring home the elements of beauty and culture from all the nations that we dwell amongst in order to unify and integrate that beauty into the symphony of humanity that we are expected to conduct.

As Jews, we therefore can remain proud of the privileged position of responsibility that we have been endowed with. It is a sacred responsibility and life mission to embody the precepts of our faith and thereby be that light to the nations in which we dwell.

Shelach & Eli Cohen

 

 This weeks Torah portion Shelach , relates the story of Moshe sending 12  spies on a reconnaissance trip to the promised land. A trip which had catastrophic consequences for the Jewish people. My mind always recalls the story of Eli Cohen Israel’s greatest spy. He is best known for his espionage work in 1961–65 in Syria, where he developed close relationships with the Syrian political and military hierarchy, and became the chief adviser to the Minister of Defense. Syrian counterintelligence eventually uncovered the spy conspiracy and convicted Eli   under pre-war martial law, sentencing him to death and hanging him publicly in 1965.

Syria refused to return Cohen’s body to his family in Israel, and his wife Nadia sent a letter to Amin al-Hafiz in November 1965 asking his forgiveness for Cohen’s actions and requesting his remains. In February 2007, the Turkish government offered to act as a mediator for their return.

Monthir Maosily was al-Assad’s bureau chief, and he said in August 2008 that the Syrians had buried him three times to stop the remains from being brought back to Israel via a special operation. Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied family requests for the remains.

In 2016 a Syrian group calling itself “Syrian art treasures” posted a video on Facebook showing Cohen’s body after his execution. No film or video was previously known to exist of the execution. The press announced on 5 July 2018 that Cohen’s wristwatch had been retrieved from Syria. His widow mentioned that the watch was up for sale months earlier, and the Mossad managed to capture it.[27] Mossad director Yossi Cohen presented it to Cohen’s family in a ceremony, and it is currently on display at Mossad headquarters.

I recall in 1993 whilst studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion being requested if I would be prepared with other students to meet a Mr and Mrs Baumal. These were the parents of Zachary Baumal a former student of our  Yeshiva. Tank commander Zachary Baumel,  went missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub against the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He was considered one of Israel’s “missing in action” soldiers”.Over the course of nearly 37 years, Israeli intelligence officers searched for the remains of fallen tank commander Zachary Baumel, who went missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub against the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Nearly four decades later, Sgt. First-Class Baumel’s body was returned to Israel and was brought to a Jewish burial at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery.

In Israel, at the time the bittersweet news was greeted with a sense of awe and pride at the lengths the military was prepared to go for its fallen soldiers. Baumel’s father, Yona, died in 2009 without learning of Zachary’s fate, but the rest of his family, including his mother Miriam, who is in her 80s, now had some form of closure. I recall Yona Baumel, sharing with us the pain and sorry the family were enduring. All they yearned for was some form of closure. The opportunity to be able to have the remains returned to them so they could have him buried in Israel and recite kaddish for their son.

Eli Cohen, has still not been returned, though his watch has made its way back to Israel. Let us hope and pray for the sake of his wife Nadia and family that  Israel’s greatest spy’s whose contribution and self sacrifice were legendary   will be  able to have the same burial accorded to Baumel  in the land and with the people whom he loved and owe him so much.

Veshavu Banim Ligvulam

Monumental Decisions

History is in danger of being erased:  that is the perceived danger posed by the toppling of a statue in Bristol. The protesters in Bristol, southwest England, tied the bronze statue of Edward Colston with rope before toppling it to cheers from the surrounding crowd before unceremoniously dumping it into the River Avon.

Colston had been a member of the Royal African Company, which transported approximately 80,000 men, women, and children from Africa to the Americas. The transporting of these slaves by Colston was done so in subhuman barbaric conditions, a consequence of which, a staggering 19,000 of those transported died on the journey.

On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to charities and his legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, memorials and buildings. The statue was erected in 1895 only to recognise his philanthropic contributions.  

Anti-racist protests have sparked a clamour for the removal of any memorialising of perceived tyrants and racists globally. From King Leopold in Belgium to John B Castleman in Louisville, Kentucky to Robert Baden-Powell in Poole, Dorset. There have also been calls to rename streets.

In Britain, these calls have led to a backlash by many fearful that if the crimes of Britain’s Empire past are widely acknowledged then it will empower demands to address the consequences: todays entrenched racial injustices.  

The removal of statues is seen by some as a rewriting of British history, as inevitably there is ignorance of the full historical facts. The majority of the population in the UK were ignorant of Colston being a slave trader prior to his statue being toppled, due to the city where his statue stood, choosing to depict him as a philanthropist for the last 100 years.   

Many citizens in the UK prefer to remain with imperial nostalgia rather than be reminded of imperial injustice of our once great British Empire.

This debate reached fever pitch last week with the defacing of the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, Westminster with the words “was a racist” during a Black Lives Matter protest. Activists claim he believed in racial hierarchies. Churchill, who was recently voted the greatest Briton of all time by the nation, is credited with the single-handed galvanising of the British people to stand up to the tyranny of Hitler and Nazi Germany. His statue is now boarded up for its own safety.

It feels to me nations have been dragged kicking and screaming into a mass history lesson, with the Black Lives Matter protesters standing at the front of the class as our teachers. It feels enlightening to gain a deeper understanding and fresh more wholesome perspective into the nations in which we live.

However, History is a complicated, multi-faceted business. It is exceptionally rare that we can deliver a tidy clear-cut historical verdict.

In Judaism, we are not expected to live in the past but to live with the past, and there are numerous examples highlighting this for us.

Lots wife on escaping the wicked city of Sodom was punished for looking back at the city when it was being destroyed, Lord Jakobovits famously said that at the beginning of the Amidah we take three steps back before we step forward, because, as Jews, we have to look back in order to look to the future, as we carry the past with us

When we study Torah, it becomes abundantly clear that no person that has ever lived was perfect.

King Solomon declared in Ecclesiastes “There is no one righteous who lived and never sinned”, and so we are shown in the Torah the greatness of our leaders, but also their failings, not for us to gloat or belittle them, but to learn from them.

Abraham questioned G-d  in relation to the inheritance of the land of Canaan by his descendants and was punished,  Moshe was considered to have sinned in failing to speak to the rock rather than hit it, Miriam’s speech despite the best of intentions was considered derogatory.  

For each of the personalities we learn about in the Torah we are expected to look at their lives in their entirety. To see things from a narrow perspective inevitably leads us to a skewed vision in terms of evaluating the mark and contribution they made

Ethics of the fathers behoves us to judge “Kol” every person favourably. The word “Kol” can also be interpreted to mean the whole rather than every. In other words when evaluating and judging a person one must look at the matter in the round. Consider that persons total contribution. There will be admirable aspects of a life, and some aspects to be ashamed of.

This is, of course, a critical lesson for evaluating history, but it is also a most crucial principle for us to utilise when interacting in our day to day relationships.

published Times of Israel 12/06/20

Racism- is that relevant to us?

The natural reaction that I think we all felt was utter revulsion as we heard the news from America of the murder of George Floyd and many of us watched the video.  But as the protest spread and the accusations of institutionalised racism and societal racism, I could not help but wonder what does that have to do with me? What does that have to do with us as Jews.  After all no race or ethnicity has being persecuted more in their history than the Jewish people.

In 1958 Martin Luther King himself at the JC convention declared that “my people were brought to America in chains, your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is borne of our common struggle for centuries not only to rid ourselves of the bondage but to make the oppression of any people by others an impossibility. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who had personally   experienced the horrors of prejudice through the Holocaust became a central figure in the struggle for civil rights. He worked closely with Dr Martin Luther King, lecturing, and famously marching with him in the fight for civil liberties.

It occurred to me as I watched the horrific video that recorded George Floyd being murdered, that somebody had chosen to film instead of attempting to stop that murder taking place. It got me thinking we also bear witness to statements and prejudice is that acceptable?

There was a statement delivered by Martin Luther King that troubled me and made me reconsider that perhaps we all are responsible for prejudice and racism in our society. He was once asked about whether it was correct to endanger the lives of innocent bystanders when he led a march that he knew would encounter violence as occurred in Selma in 1965. His answer was quite simple and direct yet astounding he said – the term is an oxymoron if you are a bystander you cannot be innocent. On reflection our passivity arguably makes us complicit with the racism being experienced.

The Torah tells us “do not stand idly by the blood of your brother” passivity and inactivity makes one culpable and responsible and in fact in Jewish law there is a further Talmudic statement referred to as  “Shetikah Kehodah” silence is deemed acquiescence .

However much we pride ourselves that we do not hold prejudices and we are not racist; we certainly must consider what if anything we as individuals and as a nation are doing to actively eliminate racism.

Sadly a number of years ago I worked on a summer programme with Ethiopian new Olim in Israel and it quickly became apparent that they were not being treated equally and this was followed later by protests expressing frustration and anger by the Ethiopian new residents many of whom felt they were being treated as second class citizens. There is by all accounts work to be done to eliminate the inequalities that exist in Israel between the diverse nation that we are.

In Britain we are all aware of instances of racism, discrimination and inequality that are prevalent. From sporting events for instance at football matches which too often have been overshadowed by racist chanting to elitist societal events many are felt as off limits to segments of society that may come from different backgrounds.

In the same fashion as we would expect and hope that other ethnicities would stand up and to speak out against anti-Semitism it is not enough, and it was never enough to remain silent in the face of prejudice. Merely to post images and comments on social media or attending a protest in the current climate does not stop racism or any type of prejudice.

The story  is told of a man who wanted to change the world so he tried to change the world and he realised very quickly  that he couldn’t succeed on his own, so he then he tried to change his city and he still couldn’t so on his own, then he tried to change his family and he recognised that he also could not succeed in changing them by himself. Finally, he recognised that the only real change he could bring about was changing himself. Real change, lasting change can only come about when we start to make changes in our behaviour. When we are no longer prepared to sit on our hands and to be indifferent to the plight, prejudices, and discriminations that we bear witness to regularly in our society.

It is imperative now that we stand in solidarity with black communities both in America and in Britain. We must make the commitment to ourselves to confront and stamp out racism and prejudice wherever we encounter it ensuring the dream of Martin Luther King at long last will become a reality.

(Published Times of Israel 5/06/20)

George Floyd and the Axed Heifer

Whilst the streets of America burn, it is incumbent upon all of us to support one another through these dark hours with kindness and peace.

One cannot help but feel a sense of deep anger and incredulity as one watches the video filmed by an onlooker of George Floyd’s death – handcuffed and helpless with the police officer kneeling on his throat for nearly nine minutes.  Sadly, this was not unprecedented, there is a long list of names of black men from Travyon Martin to Michael Brown who died because of police negligence. It was the shooting of a 17-year-old Martin by a watch officer, and the jury’s subsequent decision to acquit his killer, that led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

As shocking as the video was, the universal response was even more astounding. Breaking curfews and defying national guard troops, protests have continued for some seven days across some 40 American cities and spread internationally across the world. The protests in the US sadly have spiraled out of control, becoming full-fledged riots in some instances. Businesses and offices were torched, and shops were looted by rampaging angry protestors. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, many elements of the media, social activists and even politicians accused the police of waging a racial war across the country. It is the default narrative which we would naturally expect after George Floyd was murdered by a white Police officer.

As I watch these images on the news – the looting, the curfews and the protests – I struggle to make sense of what is happening to our world. I’ve heard many people have simply taken the decision to turn off the news, which led me to ponder: how could and should I respond to the current crisis in the United States? Without switching off, what am I to make of it all? As a Jew, what does my own heritage have to say about the sad scenes on American streets?

Our first response, having been persecuted and discriminated, as a nation, for centuries, must be to condemn unequivocally racism and discrimination in any shape or form. But there are some commentators that have taken a more nuanced approach in trying to make sense out of the chaos. They argue that the media and activists have upped the ante by cherry picking high-profile incidents to support their assertions.

Yet the evidence on the ground is far from conclusive. Police-caused deaths of unarmed citizens are statistically rare and correlate more to violent crime areas than to race specifically.

America is known as “the land of opportunity.” But whether it deserves this reputation is another question. Instead, we seem mesmerized by data on the distribution of incomes which show that incomes are less evenly distributed than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In 1973, the richest 5 percent of all families had 11 times as much income as the poorest one-fifth. Some twenty years later, they had almost 20 times as much. But it is not only the distribution of income that should concern us.

The American public has always cared more about equal opportunity than about equal results. The commitment to provide everyone with a fair chance to develop their own talents to the fullest is a central tenet of the American creed. This belief has deep roots in American culture and American history and is part of what distinguishes its public philosophy from that of Europe.

This will be something that will need to be carefully considered in the coming months. The perception by many African Americans that they find themselves in a poverty trap with little or no options, is a narrative that needs to change both in reality and in perception. There is a belief that a lack of concern to their plight over generations has led to a complete breakdown in trust between the establishment and the poorer parts of society. In addition, COVID-19 disproportionately affected the poor and minorities in particular, which brutally exposed the racial fault line still running through its social landscape.

In the Torah we find a section that catalogues the curious and mysterious episode called the Eglah Arufah literally “the Axed Heifer”.

This  law states  if a murder victim is found and no one knows who is responsible for the death, the elders of the nearest community shall take a heifer under specific conditions and slaughter it and then wash their hands over the head of the heifer and they have to declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see….then the blood shall atone for them.” 

Rashi, the medieval commentator, poses the blatant question. Are we seriously entertaining the possibility that our primary suspects are the elderly sages, the leaders of the community? What the Elders must be declaring, rather, is that they did not see the victim, or they allowed him to leave without food or escort out of the city.

It is apparent from Rashi that the Torah is equating negligence in feeding or escorting a guest with murder. We might be able to understand how a failure to provide proper sustenance to a traveler can be the indirect cause of his death; however, if all they did was neglect escorting him from the city how can they be held responsible? 

The answer is as fascinating as it is intriguing.  The guest or stranger who leaves one’s home, and is escorted by the host, though it may not physically aid them, yet it displays a deep sensitivity to the other   that one genuinely cares for them. By contrast the unaccompanied remains with a sentiment of feeling alone and being the outsider. The Torah is instructing us that simply offering moral support and displaying genuine concern for someone else’s welfare is equivocal to taking care of their physical requirements.  Had the elders not escorted their guest, it would have literally been a life and death issue.

In the coming months, there will be a tremendous amount of soul searching by individuals and society to rediscover the soul of the open and fair America which we have come to know and love. As Jews as always, we are expected to lead by example.  The Torah demands of us the highest of standards especially since we have in our own history experienced the feeling of being the stranger, the other, time and again.  With this in mind  when we do encounter  a stranger, someone that does not reside amongst us,   perhaps somebody from a different community to our own or a different culture we are expected to ensure they are  made   to feel welcome. We should be the first to display genuine care and concern for their physical and emotional wellbeing and display at all times a strong sense of dignity and respect for who they are as people.

Following the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in an encounter with David Dinkins, New York City’s first African American Mayor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed his hope to Mayor Dinkins that the mayor would be able to bring peace to the city. The mayor added “to both sides”.  To which the Rebbe then corrected, explaining “we are not two sides we are ONE side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one G-d. May G-d protect the police and all the people in the city.” May we be given the same vision – to see the current conflict as ONE side – under the care of a loving G-d. May that mindset bring peace to our streets in the coming days.

(published Times of Israel 3/06/20)

Bechukotai

“And I shall give peace in the land and you shall lie down without fear …and no sword shall cross your land “(26:6)

The assurance that the sword of war will not cross our borders is sufficient reason to rest peacefully at night. The mere fact that we have nothing to worry about should put our minds at ease. Why then does the Torah find it necessary to add to the blessing of no sword throughout the land, the additional blessing that we will sleep without fear?

The Ozrover rebbe(1889-1971) posits  this verse as alluding  not to the physical threat posed  but rather to an imaginary  sword. The type one conjures up in ones mind. Even after the shutters have been drawn and the windows and doors locked this sword festers  and is able to penetrate the most sophisticated security system. This is the sword of envy the blade of jealousy towards one another. It sews its seeds with a person’s dissatisfaction with his lot in life and manifests itself with the individuals constant backward glance at his neighbour’s success. He cannot rest peacefully, as his days and nights are filled with anxiety and fear, the result of his imagination

The torah bestows a second blessing on the committed jew. The person who is willing to the transcend the temptations this world has to offer, to devote himself to  life with a spiritual  dimension. He is guaranteed “to lie down with out fear”. This blessing then is not redundant rather it is a separate blessing that regardless of one’s circumstance –even if he is wealthy –he will sleep peacefully. He will not fear losing what he has amassed, nor will he experience the anxiety resulting from a deep rooted envy of others who have as much as he does.  Though the emotional fear may be a figment of ones overrractive  imagination  nonetheless it poses as greater danger as that of its physical counterpart it is the torah which offers protection from both.

(Published in the JC 4/05/11)