“Surely, We Can Do This!”

Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  St. Paul, Minnesota.  Dallas, Texas.

We can all agree on certain facts about what took place in those three cities last week.  Seven people were shot and killed.  The pain of those three incidents has been felt across our country.  People across this country are angry.

However, if we try to go much beyond that, we see how divided we are as country.  Different people look at these facts and interpret them differently.  And this is nothing new.

Just two weeks ago, in synagogues throughout the world, the Jewish people read the story of Moshe sending one individual from each tribe to scout out the Promised Land (see Numbers 13).  The twelve of them went out and traversed the exact same territory, but came back with two different stories.  Ten of the spies acknowledged the bounty of the land, but focused on the size and power of the inhabitants.  They suggested that the Israelites would not be able to conquer the land as promised by God.  In contrast, two of the spies – Caleb and Joshua – simply said, “Surely we can do this (Numbers 13:31).”

How could their responses to the same tract of land be so different?

The truth is that both sides were right.  There was good reason to be afraid – the Anakites and the Amalekites were scary.  However, there was also good reason to be confident – God had come through with some pretty amazing miracles up to that point.

Today, in America, if we were to send out a group of spies to get the lay of our land, I suspect that they might also come back with a split decision.  Some portion would come back saying that African-Americans are systematically treated differently by our criminal justice system.  The others would come back reporting that police officers are being unfairly judged for the way in which they perform an impossible and thankless job.

The truth is that both sides are right.  And acknowledging both of these truths does not in any way diminish either one.  They are two sides of the same coin.

As Jews, we find it frustrating when we feel that anti-Israel criticism has crossed the line into anti-Semitism, but others – from outside our community – tell us that we are wrong.  After all, we Jews ought to be considered the experts on anti-Semitism.  It is our truth.

So, when the police officers who serve our communities with courage and honor come to us and say that they are being judged unfairly, we need to hear their truth.  Similarly, when the African-American community stands up and says that they are not being treated the same way as other Americans by our criminal justice system, we also need to hear their truth.  Both sides want the same thing – a fair and just America that is safe for all of us.

In the Torah, immediately following the reports of the scouts, a Levite name Korah attempted a rebellion against Moshe and Aaron in last week’s Torah portion (see Numbers 16).  He failed, but many people died.  It was a traumatic experience for the People of Israel.  Then, fast forward to this week’s portion and we read about the passing of the beloved matriarch Miriam (see Numbers 20).  It was yet another blow to the people – three traumatic events in short succession.

Immediately following Miriam’s death, the Torah tells us, “The community was without water and they joined against Moshe and Aaron (Numbers 20:2).”  Following the scouts’ scary report, Korah’s rebellion and Miriam’s death, the people were thirsting.  They were scared and they did not know what the future held for them as a people despite promises made to them in the past.  This led to one of Moshe’s few stumbles as a leader.  Instead of speaking to the rock as God instructed, Moshe struck the rock with his staff and brought forth water.  This violent reaction on Moshe’s part ensured that he would never enter the Promised Land.  The spring became known as Mei Merivah – The Waters of Quarreling.

Today, following Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, we too are thirsting.  Borrowing from the words of the prophet Amos, we are thirsting for waters of justice, we wish to drink from the mighty stream of justice (Amos 5:24).  How to find that for which we thirst, though?  We could respond physically as Moshe did.  Perhaps, we would slake our thirst, but it would ultimately lead to more contention and strife.  The lesson of this story is that we must respond with words.  We must speak our truths and, most importantly, we must listen to the truths of others.

So, I hear the police officers across the country saying that we ask them to do too much with too few resources.  Then, when they are unable to meet all of our expectations, we criticize them.  When a tiny minority of officers acts shamefully, we try to hold all police officers accountable.  We have put them in an untenable position.

And, I hear my African-American neighbors when they say that Black Lives Matter.  For too long, our country has dragged its feet in addressing the real injustices that African-Americans face.  It is not racism to try to level the playing field after many years of unfair obstacles being placed in the way of a minority.  Quite the opposite, it is merely fairness.

If we wish this land to be our Promised Land, it will require both sides acknowledging the truth of the other.  And it starts by reaching out with our words instead of our staffs.  As Caleb and Joshua said, surely we can do this.

Shalom,
RAF.

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About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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