Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 8, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
My favorite podcast, that I listen to religiously, is the midday sports show out of Chicago on WSCR. Matt Spiegel and Jason Goff are the hosts of the show and it is a rare sports talk show that is funny, informative and makes all sorts of cultural references. So I was a little shocked when I turned on the radio show on Thursday and Jason Goff, who is black, was speaking in very emotional tones about a conversation he had with his fiancée regarding having children as African American citizens. I thought he might be speaking about the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA. But he mentioned St. Paul, MN. My first thought was, “Oh please let me have misheard, not another killing of a black man by police”. But unfortunately, it was another killing of a black man by police in St. Paul, Philando Castile, killed during a routine traffic stop for attempting to pull his license out of his pocket.
It was a very compelling half hour of radio, as a very successful, highly skilled radio host broke down to share his fears and anxiety that he and other professional young black men in his social circle feel when they see the police -- the police, who are supposed to, and for many of us do, represent security and protection. He said that his fear is not born of any animus towards the police, his uncle is a Chicago cop, but it is a fear born of experience and the experience of others, that if you are a young black male you may be stopped at any time for any reason by suspicious officers. And when one is stopped, one never knows what might happen. Nothing or tragedy.
Listening to him express his frustrations about the lack of concern he sees in society for these misdeeds, I was most struck by his claim that as long as these tragedies and fears only impact African Americans, other segments of society are too willing to look away and ignore the issue. And, of course, this unwillingness to deal seriously with the issue causes the problem to grow.
Some of the reactions to these frustrations lead to deaths of other innocent people as we send our heartfelt condolences to the murder of the 5 policemen in Dallas who were doing their job of protecting citizens during a rally against police violence.
As a Jew, I can imagine what it must be like for black men to fear government authorities and the security apparatus of a state. For centuries, we Jews did not see the security forces of the nations we lived in as protection, but as dangers to avoid. In the 20th century Jews in Arab countries were at the mercy of their governments, who fomented pogroms as earlier European governments had, to appease their citizens and to deflect anger from their own corruption. But the truth is I can only imagine what it is like because Jews in America today, while we are not free of Anti Semitism, do not have to worry about state sponsored hatred. We see the police for what they are supposed to be – protectors and securers of civil society.
They stand between civility and chaos, between life and death. Many African Americans find it hard to see that image as clearly as we do.
In this week’s Torah portion the image of standing between life and death is found prominently in an ugly moment following the Korah rebellion.
After Korah has been defeated, the people rebel against Moshe and Aaron. They believe that Moshe and Aaron have destroyed Korah and his followers because they protested against the pair.
“The whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You two have brought death upon the LORD’s people!”
At this point, God has had enough and intends to bring punishment on the entire community.
“Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant.” Moses and Aaron fell on their faces. Fearing what God may do, Moses said to Aaron, “Take the fire pan, and add incense; take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!”
Moses instructs Aaron to protect the people from God’s anger. Aaron does as Moses had ordered, and runs into the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun.
The Torah then tells us that Aaron “stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked”.
He stood between the dead and the living. Aaron became a barrier, a protector of the people, in order to stop the plague.
Rashi in his commentary refers to a midrash in which Aaron literally stands before Death – the Angel of Death. The incense keeps the Angel from killing the Israelites. The Angel looks at Aaron, “what are you doing? This is my job.” Aaron responds, “No, Moses told me to stop you. “Moses? God told me to unleash Divine wrath, Moses does not have the permission to countermand that order!” To which Aaron responds, “Moses speaks to God all the time, and the two of them are on the same page. You are to be prevented from fulfilling your task.” And the plague ends.
Ovadia Sforno, 16th Century Italian commentator, notes that Aaron stood in the breach to protect the community, a community who was just about to attack him and Moses. God had told them to“Separate yourselves from the community”. But Aaron with his incense pan stood with the community between those who were struck by the plague and those not yet struck to stop the killings -- just as the Dallas police stood to protect those who were protesting the very police entrusted to protect them. Aaron stood in the breach between life and death. The Dallas police at the rally stood in the breach between life and death.
Last week the world lost a champion of that moral code of standing in the breach between life and death when Elie Wiesel Z’L passed away. Wiesel was fond of saying that the opposite of good is not evil but indifference. It is the lack of interest in standing up for what is right, not out of fear – that is understandable - but out of unconcern that perpetuates the worst evils in the world.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel expressed what it means to stand in the breach: "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe."
He stated that as a Jew he was primarily concerned with the suffering of his own people. “But,” he continued, “there are others as important to me. Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as anti-Semitism. To me, Andrei Sakharov's isolation is as much of a disgrace as Josef Begun's imprisonment. As is the denial of Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa's right to dissent. And Nelson Mandela's interminable imprisonment."
“There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death … What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”
One person can make a difference. And Elie Wiesel was not the only significant loss last week of a person who showed the world how one righteous person could make a differnce.
Nicholas Winton is often referred to as "Britain's Schindler."
He was a young British stockbroker when, in December 1938, he canceled a skiing trip to Switzerland, and instead went to visit a friend in Prague who was helping refugees fleeing from the Nazis.
That visit changed his life — and the lives of many others. Winton went on to save 669 children, most of them Jewish, by arranging their safe passage to England from Czechoslovakia in the lead-up to World War II. Many of the parents they left behind perished in Nazi concentration camps.
It was not until 1988, that his acts of heroism were made known. Winton had never spoken about it publicly. But his wife found a scrapbook in their attic. In it were photos, names and records of hundreds of European children for whom Winton had paid train fares, forged travel documents and arranged foster families in England. It eventually came to light.
John Fieldsend one of the children whom Winton had saved stated, "He could have been imprisoned, he could have been shot — anything could have happened to him. He had no reason to be involved. He was just a good British stockbroker."
Nicholas Winton was certainly a man who stood between life and death. How many thousands of humans owe their life to his saving of 669 children? Each a world unto itself.
We live in a society today that demands that we too stand in the breach. We can’t remain indifferent to atrocious behavior of those police who are untrained or suffer from endemic racism. And we must not be unconcerned when vicious racists motivated by anger and hatred shoot police, or anyone for that matter, to express vengeance. And we should not stand idly by as prominent candidates for political office or popular talk show hosts spew their hatefulness towards individuals.
Aaron stood between life and death. We, too, must be willing to make that stand.