Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
There are times when I respond instinctively to matters and write about them urgently. There are other times when I’m stunned by events and take time to consider them carefully. In recent months, I’ve been stunned by incidents between police and African-American youths and men from Ferguson to New York City. They’ve moved our hearts and captured our headlines. Regular citizens filled the streets to protest what they saw and struggled to understand. Others attended funerals to bring honor and dignity to those who defended and sought it on behalf of others and themselves. But, all of us mourned the erosion of one or our nation’s greatest endeavors, namely, to rid our streets and neighborhoods of violence that reflect mistrust, prejudice, and hate.
In light of the world’s explosive conflicts and raging wars, perhaps we’ve grown complacent before such spectacles; but, they aren’t spectacles for our casual consumption. The aim of our nation’s laws on civil rights and moral foundations for humanity has always been to fill our hearts and minds with tolerance, compassion and respect. We cannot “stand idly by” and watch the erosion of such inherent rights; rather, we should aim to protect such rights in spite of the world’s conflicts. If we did, we would demonstrate that we’re better than what we’ve witnessed and that we can be a great nation. We have to begin close to home where we consider and examine our core values.
We start with a moral truth found in Genesis. There, we read that “in the beginning” God created one man, Adam. Why only one? Judaism teaches, so that no one can say, “My father was greater than yours” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). It’s a high moral reach for some to see in the eyes of a person of another race or faith the possibility of sharing the same origin. However one might regard the Bible, it’s irrefutable that there is a place in time when we were but one. Our human aspirations, therefore, remain bound up in shared expectations for a life of satisfaction and meaning founded on equal access to resources that enable us to choose our way in the future.
We add a Golden Rule, first found in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” It’s a golden rule because its value is held higher than most others. Love reflected in tolerance, compassion and respect can only begin in a person who knows love, personally. Mistrust, prejudice and hate are reflections of self-loathing. We learn that the habit of doing a good deed leads to more good deeds; and, that the habit of committing transgressions leads to more transgressions. Love starts within us. It’s the beginning of all we have to give.
Though there are many paths to peace, we must include the lesson from Deuteronomy, which teaches us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). Love has its place, but when love can’t conquer other passions and an offense has been committed against another person or his or her possession, he or she is entitled to compensation for the loss. Justice has the same root as righteousness; therefore, our goal in pursuing justice is to restore a person’s integrity by making them whole again.
In places where incidents between police and the African-American community occurred, justice was served in courts of law that weighed evidence and testimony. Though the outcomes didn’t serve everybody’s personal opinions, the courts of law are all that we have to adjudicate our claims. Whether we were satisfied or not with the outcomes, we all must address many levels of personal and communal hurt and disillusionment. No one went unscathed by such racially charged events in recent months, not the least of which was our nation’s priorities. Are we guarantors of freedoms to all? Is justice always blind and moral truth always on high ground? One of the freedoms we enjoy in this country is the inalienable right to express our beliefs and opinions. When we disagree, we must do so with our hearts and minds; not with our guns drawn, even if we are constitutionally entitled to draw them.
In the best and worst of times, Jewish law instructs us in, “In a place where there is no person [of integrity]; strive to be that person” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:5).
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.