Friday, December 12, 2014

We Can't Breathe

A story:

Shmuel Yankel Isserles was prepared to emigrate to America.  His nephew, Mordy, was much more worldly, and coached Shmuel Yankel on the things he would need to know when he arrived on the shores of the Goldene Medine.  They had determined that Shmuel Yankel would Anglicize his name and become Sam Israel, and so Mordy had carefully instructed his uncle, “When the clerk says, ‘Name?’, you will reply, ‘Sam Israel.’”
 Throughout the week of the steamship voyage, Shmuel Yankel rehearsed the exchange in his head.  But as the passengers disembarked, he grew flustered at the enormity of the crowd and the ensuing chaos.  And so it was that when the clerk asked him his name, he found that he had completely forgotten what to say.  Thus, Shmuel Yankel Issereles began his life in this country as “Sean Ferguson.”
 To understand the joke, you need to understand that in Yiddish, the phrase for "I've forgotten" is "shon fergessen," which, of course, sounds much like "Sean Ferguson."

These past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about that little joke (told in a slightly different form in The Big Book of Jewish Humor, edited by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks).  With the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, to hand down an indictment in the death of Michael Brown, the country is once again polarized around the issue of race.  And we all run the risk of being Sean Fergusons…we all run the risk of forgetting what Ferguson, or Staten Island,  or any of the other racially tinged cases that continue to make news around our country, really mean.

There's a Hebrew phrase that comes to mind when I think about such issues: Noge'a ba-davar.  Literally, it means "touched by the matter," but colloquially it's usually used to state that one is not impartial when it comes to an issue.  One might say, "I think my children are the most brilliant and beautiful in the world, but I am noge'a ba-davar," or, "I can't offer an opinion on this argument between my friend and my spouse, because I am noge'a ba-davar."  I think the phrase also applies to us as Americans.  When black people are dying at a far greater rate than whites, when different standards of justice are applied for a person with dark skin than for a person with light skin, our nation has a race problem.  And we are all culpable.  We are all noge'a ba-davar.

As a Jewish man, it's part of my upbringing (or even part of my innate makeup) to be hyper-vigilant against acts that discriminate against someone on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  After all, at multiple junctures in our people's history, there have been those who have feared us because of our differences, and who have sought to destroy us.  Having felt the sting of persecution, how can we sit idle as our neighbors bleed?

And yet our Jewish experience does not directly correlate to that of our African-American brothers and sisters.  With few exceptions, we as Jews do not bear external clues that proclaim our identity to others.  Though I have on occasion been subject to epithets or other injustices, no one has ever crossed the street to get away from me, or refused to board an elevator with me, or made assumptions about my motives when I walk into a store, simply because of my religious identity.  But our friends and neighbors of color face such indignities as part of their daily reality.  And since we are all noge'a ba-davar, we must stand in solidarity with them to ensure that this reality changes.

Since the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice came at the hands of police officers, many have expressed a growing distrust in law enforcement personnel.  While that sentiment is understandable as we grieve over such losses, I believe it is wrong.  There are many compassionate men and women working under very stressful conditions to ensure the public safety.  At the end of the day, they are still human, relying on split-second instincts to help them determine whether an individual is a threat.  And like all humans, at times their judgment will fail them, and they will be wrong.  Some may act in a manner that is willfully malicious; others will make mistakes in the pressure of the moment.  Certainly there are reasons to seek improved training, and to advocate for reforms of our justice system.  But to paint every officer of the law as inherently biased or unjust is narrow-minded and unfair.  Rather, I believe that we must work together within our communities to create an atmosphere of love AND justice for all.

In this week's Torah portion, VaYeshev, we find the interesting tale of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.   If you're interested in the full story, you can read it in Genesis 38, or here.  Tamar finds that she must resort to trickery in order to make Judah grant her what is rightfully hers.  When she proves her claim in court, Judah is left to admit, tzadkah mimeni, "She is more righteous than me."

But what works in the Torah does not always work in real life.  For no one of us is more righteous, more deserving of justice and liberty than another.  Until we make that realization and until we each embody that principle in each and every one of our interactions with one another, true justice cannot be served.

We can't breathe.  Our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and friends cannot breathe.  And we are all noge'a ba-davar.  It is incumbent upon us to demand change.